Monthly Archives: December 2013

12-29-13 THE FLIGHT TO EGYPT

THE FLIGHT TO EGYPT

Matthew 2: 13-23

 

In the “end of the year” lists of
things that got accomplished in 2013 and things that did not get done, one list
included “immigration reform” as something that did not happen. Of course, we
know that has to do with keeping out those who want to enter our country
without legal papers.  But the part I
want to address today is border checkpoints.  Although I have not physically driven a car
from the United States into Mexico, a reporter who did so said that when he
left the US to enter Mexico, he encountered relatively few questions and little
resistance. But upon his return to the US, the lines were long and it took
several hours to finally cross, not just because he was questioned, but because
everyone in front of him was questioned. In the two times we have traveled to
Israel and then to Egypt, the governments of the two countries physically made
people get off of one bus in Israel, walk the length of a foot ball field with
every piece of luggage they brought along, and board an Egyptian bus. Seeing
older people try to carry all of their belongings and using canes were painful
to watch. No one had free hands to offer help. When we visited the little town
of Bethlehem, almost the same thing happened but without the walking; as we
drove up to Bethlehem’s wall, secured by Israel, our guide of Jewish descent departed
from the bus and waited for us; the driver carried us a few hundred yards and
Palestinian guards entered our bus to check our identification. Once satisfied
that we were who we said we were, a Palestinian guide entered our bus and toured
us around Bethlehem. The process reversed as we departed. On a different trip
as we entered Israel from Jordan, we did not get a feeling of danger, just
tedium, as we got off a bus on the Jordan side, went into a bus terminal, spent
more than an hour and a half having our passports checked, and then we departed
the terminal on the other side, the Israel side. Borders seem to be places
where exhaustive checks are carried out in the name of safety and national
security. Ironic, isn’t it, that if Egypt had had secure borders in 6 A.D. the
Holy Family might have had trouble keeping baby Jesus from Herod. Perhaps they
would have detained the family and sent the infant back into the clutches of
Herod. Today we rejoice that there was no record of resistance at the border of
those two countries when Mary, Joseph and Jesus made the journey. Today we are
reminded of protections stories in the annals of history, like the Diary of
Anne Frank, when readers learned how Gentiles in Amsterdam protected Jewish
refugees at great personal cost. We also remember Oskar Schindler, a German
industrialist, who protected Jews from annihilation. His story was made famous
in the book by Thomas Keneally and the movie adapted by Steven Spielberg called
“Schindler’s List.” I wonder if there were Egyptians who chose to protect our
holy family as well?  After all, Mary and
Joseph would have been just a Jewish family wishing for temporary asylum away
from the grasp of Herod. Who might have helped them? And where would we be if
the border patrol had turned Mary, Joseph, and their baby away?  Today we look at this Christmas story of a
family leaving Bethlehem and departing Herod’s jurisdiction through new eyes.

 

The text in verse 13 starts out
saying “After they had left,” and of course, this means the Magi, the Wiseman.
We will talk more about them next week. We recall from last week that God
wisely chose a human father for his son who listened to his dreams. That
quality would come in handy again as God’s messenger didn’t have to do the
convincing that originally had to take place. The angel gave an imperative
command, perhaps like a terse whisper: “Get up, take the child and his mother
and escape to Egypt. Remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to
search for the child, to destroy him.” What would it be like, parents, to
believe your child, in this case your baby,
was in danger of being kidnapped or being killed? Would every instinct in your
body be called to attention?  In this
case, the killing machine was not one of today’s terrorists or a man named
Hitler, but he was just as bad: a maniacal, powerful, Middle Eastern Dictator
self named “Herod The Great,” who had proven his threats in the past by killing
some of his sons, his wives, and his armies to keep them from seizing control
from his empire. He ruled all of Israel in his day, and no part of Israel would
have been outside of his domain. But Egypt was; it had been under Roman control
since 30 B.C. Scholars like Raymond Brown and William Barclay tell us that
Egypt was already a place that had welcomed many refugee Jews to the outskirts
of its cities.  Mary and Joseph would not
have been the first to seek their political asylum in the land of the pyramids.
There is no record of a border patrol or checkpoint: they just migrated and
situated there for probably two years.
Jews in Egypt, like Jews in the 20th century who left Germany
for Austria or the United States or other countries, came with their faith in
God and a hard work ethic. We do not know if they were liked or despised; but
we know that they got to be there, probably as part of a close-knit community,
for quite a length of time. What would make a Jew leave his homeland to find
safe rest in a foreign land? In this case, an angel, a warning, and a belief
that the threats would come to pass if they stayed.

 

Verses 16-18 describe the brutal
killing that Herod carried out.  Often
dramatized as the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” it is depicted as the killing
of hundreds of children two years old and under. In all likelihood, with
Bethlehem and the surrounding areas just having a thousand inhabitants, with a
yearly birth rate of about 10-20, and perhaps half of them boys, the number of
boys under 2 who might have been killed was around 20. Still, 20 is too many,
even one is too many, for the grieving mothers and fathers.  But for Mary and Joseph, there was no time to
extend their stay in Bethlehem visiting with family or friends; their newborn was
in danger. Going back to Nazareth
was no answer since Herod ruled that territory as well, and Herod’s army would
have spotted a family with a newborn traveling back. So under cover of
darkness, Joseph—again, the right man chosen to protect and raise the Son of
God—got  his family ready and headed out,
not to a promised land, but to the land known by Jews from the Exodus story, a
place where Moses had been born, a place of civilization and pluralism and
safety. “It was the classic land of refuge for those fleeing from tyranny in
Palestine. When King Solomon sought to put Jeroboam to death in 1 Kings 11:40,
he ‘arose and fled to Egypt.’ When King Jehoiakim sought to kill the prophet
Uriah, son of Shemaiah in Jeremiah 26:21, he
fled and escaped to Egypt; and about 172 B.C. the high priest Onias IV fled to
Egypt to escape from King Antiochus Epiphanes, [the horrible ruler in the
Daniel story.] [Raymond Brown, BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH, Doubleday, 1979, p. 203]
Whether Mary and Joseph and Jesus just went over the border or deep into Egypt
is a matter of speculation and legend; but that Christmas journey saved the
life of their child, and of our Savior.

 

Historians tell us that Herod the
Great died in 4 B.C. in all likelihood. (Yes, B.C. because the Gregorian
calendars get the date wrong for Jesus’ birth, which was most likely 6 B.C.
instead of zero)) Herod the Great had divided up Israel and bequeathed a
portion of it to each of his sons: to Herod Archelaus, who was almost as
ruthless as his father, he gave Judea which included Jerusalem and Bethlehem;
to his son Herod Antipas, who was a more sensible ruler, he gave Galilee, which
included Nazareth and Capernaum; to his son Herod Philip, he gave the
northeastern section of Israel. Joseph, then, upon getting word of which son
was ruling which territory, decided to return to his hometown of Nazareth and
go around the territory of Judea in doing so. At that point the family finally
started to put down some roots.  Matthew
says this was done to fulfill a prophesy saying “He will be called a Nazarene.”
Interestingly, no one has found a record of an Old Testament prophet who said
that! But what has been learned is
that Nazareth was the perfect setting for Joseph to raise his new adopted
son.  Both Mary and Joseph had family
there for support; construction of Roman amphitheatres in the area would have
given builders like Joseph, and later Jesus, places to work. It was likely in
those places the Jesus learned the ways of the Romans. And with a short climb
up a back hill in Nazareth, the boy Jesus could see the mount where the great
Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal years before; and he could see the
valley of Megiddo, where two great pathways crossed: the way of the sea and the
north-south way, where more people and tribes passed through and where more
battles had been fought then any place known in the recorded world.  So the boy Jesus had the perfect perch from
which to see the world and to grow into its Savior.  But it would never have happened had there
not been a country, like Egypt, that welcomed refuges into their land.  Today we are thankful for God’s angels, for
Joseph’s open heart, and for the country that gave safe haven to the Holy
Family.

 

Let us pray:  O God of Wonder and God of Might: we have had
a glimpse of your divine plan to bring Jesus into the world and protect him
from harm until his time had come.  Your
steadfast love for us makes us feel humble and grateful. In this season, for
those who are ready to live differently, here on the cusp of a new year, fill
them and change them with your amazing grace and steadfast love; in Jesus’ name
we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                December
29, 2013

 

12-22-13 HIGH REGARD FOR JOSEPH

HIGH REGARD FOR JOSEPH

Matthew 1: 18-25

 

The importance of good fathers and
good mothers has never waned over the years. I’ve said to people before that I
could change the world if I could change poor parents into good parents. Good
parents guide, encourage, correct when needed and cheer when appropriate! Good
parents give boundaries for house rules; they might give extra privileges for
children who handle responsibilities well and have consequences for broken
rules clearly outlined in advance. Sometimes children have parents who live
together and sometimes, through divorce or a lack of marriage or military
service or prison, children may live with one parent most of the time. But the
goal is always the same for everyone: to be the best fathers and mothers we can
be. Already, Mary Ann and I have said to our children, who now have children, that
Calvin and Shane are now listening to their words and watching their actions. People
of any age can note when things you say do not line up with the things you do.
It is vital for Christians, for parents, and truthfully everyone else, that
they align.

 

In our world, for various reasons, we
have step-fathers, surrogate fathers, biological fathers and fathers who have
adopted their child.  Today we are
focusing on fathers for one main reason: we are considering God’s selection of
Joseph as the man who adopted Jesus as his own. Although Christianity has
focused much on Mary, it has been shown by modern psychology that the same
gendered parent is the most influential adult in the life of a child. So as
carefully as God chose Mary, imagine the extra-complication of finding not only
a young virgin mother, but also one who is already engaged to a wiser, older
man who would be a good role model for Jesus growing up. Remember, although
Jesus was aware of his Heavenly Father according to Luke 2:49, he was molded on
earth by a man who God chose. So in all the world, God did not just choose Mary
while Joseph came with the package; God certainly chose Joseph too. Customs in
those days had fathers start to arrange the marriage for their daughters when
they were young teenagers: usually arranging marriage to an older, wiser man
who had a good job. We know very little about Joseph, but what we do know is
striking. You see, there was one other qualification that Jews thought the
messiah must have: his family tree needed to go back to the root of Jesse
according Isaiah 11, making messiah come “from the house and lineage of David.”
According to Matthew’s gospel, we get a confirmation of Joseph in the strongest
of terms: he had been “vetted” as they say, and approved, not only by God, but
by the fickle and particular Jewish leaders. Matthew’s gospel includes a
lineage for Jesus in chapter one. It starts with these words: “The book of the genealogy
of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Of course Matthew is
speaking in historical terms. But at the end of the genealogy he speaks in
legal terms when he says: “and Jacob, the father of Joseph, the husband of
Mary, of whom Jesus was born.”
Everything had to line up, and it did! Even the law recognized Joseph as
Jesus’ father! But in God’s eyes, he had picked a man to be a great role model
for his Son. Joseph, we learn, was said to be a carpenter, but the bigger term
was “builder.”  He was a man of grace, a
man of some means, and a man of skills.

 

 Boys and girls know this is an important
story. I witnessed some of that good focus as we were preparing children and
youth for the 5:30 service on Christmas Eve; I almost always see it in those
playing a part or reading from the Bible, they treat their role with such
careful attention that I am moved by their earnestness. God looks for ones such
as those to collaborate with for life-changing plans for the world.

 

Today let’s set the stage again: a
long time ago, in a rural region called Galilee, God searched not for a young
woman and a man who were stars. God searched for and, through an angel, visited
two who had hearts that would not react adversely to the request that would
come from the authority of God; for people who would not react to the messenger
by suggesting better ways to carry out the plan.  God needed two people who, when visited by
rather frightful creatures called angels, would listen, withhold judgment,
trust the request, and then follow directions. So the announcement, or
annunciation, was made to Mary, according Luke, and to Joseph, according to
Matthew.  We are reminded that “Mary is
not the initiator [of the angel’s news].. Her ‘Yes’ is a response, an ‘amen’ to
the saving initiative of God…. Her response is active, not passive. God deals
with her as a free agent, not as an object to be manipulated. As St. Augustine
put it, ‘she conceived the word in her mind before giving the Word
a body in her womb.’… All of us are invited to … copy her faith, her patience,
her obedience, her meditative spirit, her fortitude, her surrender, and her
spotless purity.” [Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J, THE LIVING PULPIT Vol. 10, No.
4, p. 30-31]  Most sermons on this Sunday
deal with Mary, and certainly with good reason. What that young woman said and
did in response to God’s request almost certainly caused her to be ostracized
by her village because a child was growing in her that didn’t belong to the man
to whom she was engaged. Yet as she said “yes” to God, it also made her revered
for generations to come.  The hymn known
as the Magnificat in Luke chapter 1, shared between Mary her cousin, Elizabeth,
is the song of Mary’s young heart and will, who still magnifies God for
choosing her.

 

But few sermons talk about the
adoptive father, Joseph, the one who an angel also visited to calm him down before
news of his fiancée’s condition reached him. What the Heavenly Father could not
teach his Son, he knew the earthly father would teach, so God made the
selection carefully. This man had to have some extraordinary qualities. For
instance, if Galilean women were generally submissive in the first century,
Galilean men were generally stubborn and sure of what they knew even when they
had no business being as sure as they were. I know some men like that today!  So to find a man, already engaged to a young
woman, and have him exhibit the same good heart and character as the young
woman, makes me wonder if God chose them even before their fathers arranged for
their marriage!  But even after so much
planning, there was still a question mark in the mind of our Creator: God had
agreed not to breech our human will, with the hope that we would choose God’s
way, but that we could choose
otherwise. The Heavenly Father must have held his breath until Mary said “yes” to
the request from the angel. She did. Then it came to Joseph, as he heard the
news he decided to “break off the engagement, and part from her,” even though
by law he could have had her stoned.  As
Joseph laid down for his troubled night sleep, wondering how he and his own
father could have so misjudged Mary, God had an angel visit him in a dream. Who
listens to dreams? Not everyone; but God chose a man who heeded the message and
messenger in this dream: what a rare man indeed, although another Biblical
Joseph also interpreted dreams in Genesis, didn’t he? From today’s dreamer in Matthew chapter 1, we read that Joseph, not by
God’s crushing will, but by his own human will, agreed to the arrangement that
the angel outlined.
And in next week’s sermon, when a dream again guided
Joseph, he took Mary and baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s maniacal
rampage. One thing some have learned from Joseph is to be a better listener to
our dreams. But more than that, they’ve learned through the Christmas stories
to trust that God has a bigger plan in
mind for your life and our world
. And of course, we learn how important it
is for every one of every age to be a good example for eyes of those who watch
our actions and the ears of those who listen to us. Finally, we are told how
crucial attitude, spirit, patience, and faithfulness are to God. If any of
those were not in place, Mary or Joseph might actually have said “no.” I can
often see which children, youth, or adults will be successful because of their
good attitude, and I can see why someone’s bad attitude holds them back. A good
attitude and spirit mattered as God planned the soul-saving events that
happened long ago, and they matter today. How could such qualities either
invite or hinder God’s plans for your future?  With all the clamor of the season, God may be
looking for a quiet place to get your attention, so that hope can be born again
into your heart or the heart of others ready to hear and receive a new message;
perhaps one from angels prepared to break through the crusty, arrogant, or
stubborn hearts of those with power …
and to lift up the crushed spirits of those with little or no power.  God too,
watches us. And what does God look for most: seeing if our actions match our
words. May you, and I, be ready to say “yes” to God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                December
22, 2013

12-15-13 WHO IS THIS JESUS?

WHO IS THIS JESUS?

Matthew 11: 2-11

 

Sunday
School I think is a time of Christian formation for children, youth, and adults
and some wonderful things happen as a teacher connects with his or her
students. Some of my most meaningful relationships growing up were with Sunday
School teachers. I smiled when I heard this story: in one of the elementary
classes a teacher invited the children to draw a picture of creation since they
were studying Genesis. She looked over a little boy’s shoulder and saw the
outline of a figure. “Is that Adam?” the teacher asked the boy. “Nope,” he
said, “its God.” His teacher’s first reaction came out as she said to her
student, “but nobody knows what God looks like,” to which the boy replied,
“They will now.”

 

We
might not know what God looks like, but somebody in the first century, many
people in fact, saw Jesus. We use imagination, and paintings, to decide what he
might have looked like. Church historian Roland
Bainton, in his book Behold the Christ, says,

One does not
know how Jesus looked. No authentic likeness has come down to us. The New
Testament scarcely gives a hint. …The writers of the New Testament were
interested in what Jesus said and did, rather than how he looked. [Harper and
Row, 1974, p.13]

 

Even
though you haven’t seen Jesus in person, perhaps you have fixed in your mind
your favorite images of him. Some love Christmas so much that their favorite
idea of Christ is baby Jesus, as Will Farrell’s character, “Ricky Bobby”
referred to him in the comedy “Talladega Nights”! Others also love the infant
Jesus best and want to put Jesus into a Currier and Ives print, capturing the
magic of the season! Still others focus on the nativity through the Rembrandt
painting with warm gold tones, or they remember a charming picture of baby
Jesus they saw in a children’s book, with chubby cheeked cherubs and lowly
shepherds. But the birth of Jesus was not the pinnacle of his life and work; it
was the beginning of God’s connections with people in a special way. Last week
MaryAnn and  I  showed our Confirmation Class images of Jesus
through the ages and from many nations. Included was the image that hung on
most United States church walls in the 20th century, and if you were
asked to pick Jesus out of a line up, you would probably pick that image. But
just as we are made in God’s image according to Genesis, sometimes we make
Jesus into our image as well. In some cultures and communities, Jesus looks
African American or Asian, but, as a Middle-Eastern man it is likely that he
actually had brown skin. But who really cares? When it comes to the one called
teacher, Savior, and healer to people over the ages, it’s likely that their own
image of Jesus is in the minds of many as they pray. And the most important
question today is not an historical one, or anthropological one. The most
important question about Jesus is a theological one: “Who is this Jesus to
you?”

 

In
a seminar on the differences between men’s and women’s brains it was shown that
women’s brains capture details more, while men’s brains mainly glean the “gist”
of a proposal; they want the bottom line. But men, we can’t move to the bottom
line of Christianity—calling Him Savior—without knowing what it demands of us.
And there are those who treat Jesus differently. For some people, Jesus is a
911 operator. They only call on him with an emergency, like an illness, an
injury or a tragedy, or with a request to have baby blessed or a wedding
blessed.  Is Jesus just a 911 call for
you, or do you try to communicate with him regularly?

 

For
Jews and for Muslims, Jesus is a prophet; with that title, and in that
capacity, some of them honor Jesus more than some nominal Christians! This week
as I was teaching the Men’s Bible Study, I reminded them of the Apostle Paul’s words. Speaking to other Christians in his
letter to the Romans, he said: “Those who live according to the flesh set their
minds on the things of the flesh. But those who live according to the Spirit
set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is
death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life.” [8: 5-6] So you see, even in
the first century there were curious spectators, nominal Christians, and
Christian disciples. The nominal Christians are the ones who, at one time,
joined a church or were baptized in his name and then, as if they had a
heavenly insurance policy, have done little to demonstrate their allegiance to
Christ. We still have those kinds of people in the world; often they are called
those who are “of the flesh” or “carnal Christians.” But then there are others.
They are Spiritual Christians; they are disciples, always hungry for what Jesus
taught and hungry to grow closer to him. They seek to right wrongs in the world
and to connect with those who are physically or emotionally broken. These
people, like Isaiah described Messiah, say Jesus is a “wonderful counselor.” As
the hymn says, “What a privilege it is to carry everything to God in prayer.”
Jesus did that; and if you have ears to hear, Jesus can be one of your life’s
best guides. Others call him Rabbi; teacher. Many wise persons who don’t call
him “Christ” still believe he is a masterful and artful teacher, especially in
his parables. And we know also that Jesus was a healer in the Gospels. Perhaps
that is his main function for you; to be the one whose name you use to give
authority to your prayers. There is no question about Jesus’ power to heal. And
there is no question that people who have been prayed for by others often have
felt the healing and, in some studies, have healed faster than people treated
with medication and no prayer. Jesus, the child of Bethlehem, the boy from Nazareth, and the man from Galilee,
has created giant ripples in the pond of the last 2000 years.

 

Even
the cousin of Jesus, John the Baptist, while he was in prison, told the
disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for
another? Christians latch on to this answer, and, to be truthful, Jews are
tempted by it. For according to Isaiah, and other prophets, when messiah comes
“the blind receive their sight and the lame walk; lepers are cleansed and the
deaf hear; the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to
them.” [Matt. 1: 3-6] Jesus said those thing were happened exactly when John
asked about him!The shoe starts to fit for the title “Messiah!” If seekers
after messiah were in our world today, (and they are) they coul take down their
posts on Facebook or their ads on Craig’s List for Messiah because long ago
Jesus said: “I am He.”  I know as
Christians we’ve waited what seems to be a long time for Christ’s return; but
in those days, when no messiah had come ever, this declaration would
have been met with disbelief or suspicion.
Too many had come and gone with that claim and it had turned out to be
false. Why should this one named Jesus be the true Messiah?

 

You
might wonder that too. Is Jesus the Messiah for you? That means that he is
“God’s anointed one; if he is Messiah for you then you call him “Christ.”
Christ means “messiah.” But there’s one modification we need to the original
question: “Who is this Jesus to you?” The litmus test between Christians
and every other group:  philanthropists;
Buddhists; atheists, Jews, Muslims, and any other is simply this: “Is he your
Savior and Lord? Do you call him Savior and Lord? Is he the Savior of your soul
and Lord of your life?  If he is, you
join generations of persons who were named “Christian” by that declaration. If
he is not, then you may not be a bad person, but you are not a Christian by the
classic definition. So for Christians this time of the year is filled with
longing, waiting, and wonder, culminating in glory, love, and joy at his birth!

 

So
during this season many will join in singing one of the classic Christmas
carols of all time on Christmas Eve: “Silent night, holy night.” And the final
line joins Christians with one another in declaring whose birth we celebrate.
It says:

“Christ
the Savior is born.”  Is he the Savior of
your life, as he is of mine?

 

Let
us pray:

Dear
Creator God: we give you glory and praise for our life! And we are humbled that
you would send this broken world a Savior, one who truly embodied your Divinity
and our humanity. Today as we wait for the celebration of his birth, help us
again to prepare him room in our heart and life. Give us the courage to make
changes for his sake a week before we might try to make New Year’s resolutions.
Then as we are transformed, we can let His light shine through us. In Jesus’
name we pray. Amen.

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                              December
15, 2013

 

 

12-08-13 A SINGEING SERMON

“A SINGEING SERMON”

Isaiah 11: 1-10; Matthew 3: 1-12

 

The
story is told of a great preacher passing away and his wife found, in his desk,
most of his recent sermon manuscripts. On one of them he had made a written
note, and she smiled. His note to himself said: “Weak point: pound pulpit and
raise voice!” Today we have to say that although some preachers might do that,
there are many other preachers over the ages whose fiery sermons—singeing
sermons—are content-filled and on target. And not every sermon of every person
is a fire ball. A preacher, or a prophet, looks at the world, tries to hear
God’s voice, then seeks to address the issue of his or her day—gently or
forcefully.  Today I hope you will
consider what voices you hear from pulpits of various kinds—including  stages, TV screens, computer screens, books,
sanctuaries, chapels, and auditoriums—and think “Why do they say what they
say?” Further, I hope you also ask yourself: “Are there changes in my life that
God, through this preacher, is addressing?” Preachers and prophets don’t do
their work to hear themselves preach. They do their work because they must; God
has commissioned them to try to be his mouthpiece to name wrongs, address
injustices, and to make the kingdom of our world more like the Kingdom of our
Lord and of his Christ. Let’s look at some examples today.

 

Back
in 742 B.C.E (or B.C. as it used to be called) a prophet named Isaiah started
his sometimes urgent, sometimes brimstone, and sometimes gentle messages to Israel
from God. At one point in chapter one God told him to say: “Ah, sinful nation,
people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly;
you have forsaken me and despised me.” (Isaiah 1:4) Isaiah could see the moral
corruption of the northern kingdom of Israel while God allowed that weakened
nation to be taken over by Assyrians; then Isaiah warned the southern kingdom
of Judah about the peril they would certainly face if they did not repent. (Let
those with ears in our own day, hear this word.) In Isaiah 2, 3, 4, and 5,
chapters of judgments follow. Then there is a pause as Isaiah describes his
call from God—a perfect break from the singeing sermons he had preached. All of
a sudden we hear about our holy God, the temple that was filled with smoke, and
the seraphim taking a burning coal with tongs (because it was glowing hot) from
the altar of God. And with the tongs, Isaiah’s lips are singed to symbolically
burn away his sins. Some youth groups do the same kind of thing by writing down
their sins, praying for forgiveness, and then tossing their paper in a
campfire. There are no 3rd degree burns but the effect is similar:
sins are burned away! Then Isaiah hears God say: “Give them hope.” And so in
chapter 7 he tells the world that God will give them a sign: “A young woman
will conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel, (which means
“God with us.”) What hope and what comfort comes from the lips of the one who
raged just a few chapters earlier! In chapter 8 we learn that God gives further
signs, and then in chapter 9, boy or boy; thanks to Handel we think we’ve
arrived at Christmas, even though we haven’t.
There is, on the horizon, a messiah; this prophet Isaiah, who had used
scorching words, now lifts up those who had trembled from his words before. “The
people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” he begins. And after
several more verses he says “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is
given” and the rest. Christians rejoice! Jews hope! And we all love to lift
these few sentences of wonder out of the pages of wrath. But Isaiah hasn’t
finished with his vision of messiah. He says that when messiah comes he will
come from “the stump of Jesse.” He tells from which line the messiah will come;
it’s from Jesse’s line, whose youngest son, David, was a shepherd and king! And
for those who are diligent enough to trace the line, it goes from Jesse (and
even before Jesse) all the way to Joseph, Jesus’ legal father on earth,
according to Matthew chapter 1. But there is more. Isaiah says in chapter 11
that “The Spirit of the Lord, shall rest upon” this messiah. Then he describes
the church’s perfect description of messiah, from which we gain the idea of the
seven-fold gifts of the Spirit; “The Spirit of wisdom and understanding; the
spirit of counsel and might; the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”
And to these 6 gifts of the spirit the first century writers who translated the
Hebrew into Greek added the quality of “piety.” Thus began the history of the
seven-fold gifts of the spirit as our communion candelabra reflects. When
messiah comes, (Isaiah said going out onto a limb) predators will sit next to
victims and not eat them. Goodness; the prophet who said such angry things in
his message of warning also found his voice of reassurance and wonder. Even
today, some are motivated by fear to change, so there are preachers who
literally try to “scare the hell out of sinners.” But others are motivated by
hopeful pictures and loving actions and so other preachers use that approach.
God invites prophets and preachers to do what is necessary to change us. Let
those with ears, hear.

 

There
were plenty of prophets whose words could singe the back side of sinners from
742 B.C.E to 30 C.E.,  Hosea, Joel, Amos,
Micah, Zephaniah, and Malachi were among them and their accounts are including
in the First, or Old Testament, in our Bibles. But at the beginning of the New
Testament, a new fiery prophet appears: John. The Bible says in Matthew 3 that
his role, like the others, was to “preach repentance.”  And in so doing, he even quotes words that
the now revered Isaiah once proclaimed: The Spirit of the living God breathes
life into the words again as he said, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make
straight his paths.” Such a request was not just for the sing-songing delight
of listeners: it was a command! It is a command: prepare! Whenever a
king would come into a community, the way was prepared. Just as there are
massive funerals for dignitaries such as Nelson Mandela or royalty or American
presidents, there will be changes in one’s life to make way for the Lord. We
have to prepare for them. That is still the call today. Let those who have
ears, hear. If your life is a mess, or in trouble, or in despair, make changes
now that prepare him room in your heart, not just with prayer, but with
changes. That’s what John preached, and what Isaiah preached. It is also what
others have preached through the years, after taking the pulse of civilization
and finding its Godly heartbeat needed life support. Yes, there is Christmas in
2013, but is God honored in America? Is God first and foremost in the lives of
people around the world? Are people really changing in ways to honor God, not
just for a couple of weeks at Christmas that will assuage their guilt until
Easter, but truly meaningful changes?
All through the ages, preachers with an ear toward God have preached
this same message, often with the same result. A few, a precious few, actually
made changes in their lives and the seeds of the gospel got planted for a new
generation. That is still happening! But for so many others, they can’t wait to
leave church services to get about doing the things that matter more to them:
checking  their text messages, getting
home to football, getting to the restaurant before the crowd, or worrying about
bills. God is especially glad when good news is planted in the souls of
people who will change lives, who will work for justice, who will  point out injustice, and who will stand up for
those whose voices are mostly not heard.
This is the season for that.

 

Over
the years the world has been made better from the words offered by prophetic
preachers like Martin Luther, and John Calvin and John Knox in the 15th
and 16th centuries; 17th century preacher/writers like
John Bunyan; 18th century preachers like John Wesley, Jonathan
Edwards and Lyman Beecher; 19th century preachers like Charles
Spurgeon, Philips Brooks, and Dwight L. Moody; 20th century
preachers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Billy Graham, Martin
Luther King Jr., Fulton Sheen, and Barbara Brown Taylor. 21st
century prophetic preachers also have their voices on the pulse of our troubled
nation and on our world of great unrest, including insightful words from Pope
Francis.  God is certainly speaking through
gifted men and gifted women of many backgrounds and ethnicities. Our world is
changing in technology so fast, but are we still grounded in God? In Advent,
listen to the voices of preachers, not because every one of you will accept
being changed by a new gospel message that could be planted in your heart, but
because God hopes that some of you will. There is rocky soil in the hearts of
many; there are fowls of the air that devour such seeds of the gospel; and some
of the gospel seeds fall on the floor even in church, under your pew, past your
hymnal and off your lap. Listen to the voices of preachers who fill this pulpit
and pulpits in the world for this reason alone: you might be among the one, or
the few, who will invite Christ into your life today, for the first time, or in
a new significant way. A light bulb might come on in your mind today, or your
dreary or weary soul might finally light up with the presence of Christ. God
needs your voice; God needs your actions; and God needs changes in this world.

 We know what the world is supposed to look
like when messiah comes: remember? Isaiah described it especially in chapter
11. See if we, together, can make parts of our world more like that, so that if
the Heavenly Father has the inclination to send his Son for a second time very
soon, you will have prepared him room in your heart. A change in your life
could reflect the Christ who is alive in you! That’s what Jesus hopes to find
when he returns; not a manger; not a castle; just a place in the hearts of his
bride: the church. Prepare him room! It matters more than anything else.

 

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                                          December
8, 2013