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HEAVEN’S BIRTH ANNOUNCEMENT

Luke 1: 26-38

 

Sean Lucas, Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Hattiesburg Mississippi, did a little research on the very first anthem I sang when I belonged to the Trinity Methodist Church Celestial Choir in Richmond Virginia.  I was in second grade when I learned “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Most recently I sang it at our Blue Christmas service this past Wednesday; and we’ll sing it as our second hymn today. The words are etched in my mind. “The editor of Scribner’s Monthly needed a Christmas poem to fill out his December 1872 issue. He cast about for several authors to write something, but they all turned him down. Finally he decided to solicit a poem from one of the most famous poets of the period: Christina Rosetti…. By 1872, she was diagnosed with Graves’ disease and experienced significant pain. However, that did not stop her from writing poetry.”

In response to the request from Scribners, she sent a poem that started:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone.

Snow had fallen snow on snow, snow on snow

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

 

As I told my Bible class on Wednesday, strictly speaking there is snow in Israel year round, but it is only on top of the highest mountain: Mount Hermon. Melting snow in the warm months gives fresh water to the Jordan River, but the snow does not melt completely. In Israel, including Bethlehem, the weather is like a typical winter in Florida: it is not icy cold. We get occasional snow flurries, as does Bethlehem.  But through the eyes of someone living in England, where December takes on the atmosphere of a Charles Dickens story, there is much that is bleak and cold.  And through the lens of a young woman with a debilitating illness, a bleak mid-winter is clearly imagined.

 

But there is another way to consider the bleak midwinter. There had not been a prophet make a clear proclamation about God, according to the Bible, since Amos. He had proclaimed God’s word 400 years earlier! And what had Amos said?  “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.” [Amos 8: 11-12]  Imagine: our country is a little over 200 years old; the last word from God through a prophet came 400 years earlier than the Christmas miracle in Bethlehem? Could it be that God would not speak with people on earth for that long? Or could it be that God was still speaking to people but they didn’t trumpet the news? Surely God has spoken, and is still speaking, to ordinary people; some say they have actually heard from God; I believe I have heard from God at least twice in my life; maybe more.  But God’s holiness breaking into this world can sometimes be a startling: the Bible describes it as a “theophany;” a God-thing; often accompanied by smoke, or fire, and thunder. But in other places God speaks in a still small voice. I’m thinking that God can surprise us; God can be in the hungry man, the cold woman, the inquisitive child, or in the rebellious youth. Where might we find God today? And how might God appear?

 

Long ago, (according to the words in what we call the Old Testament) like a caring mother or a loving father, God wanted to be with creation. God was with people; usually ones called “chosen people.” Later, God embraced people who were other than the Israelites, or Jews; God embraced ones called “strangers,” or Gentiles, or people from other lands. The way God would chose to embrace people is to check to see if they already were serving someone as a god; if they were not, and their hearts were open, then the Lord might enter their lives and bless them. That’s what the story of Ruth is about, after all. Ruth was a Moabite who married a Jew, the son of Naomi and Elimilech. Moabites were not entirely devoted to God, but as she married her husband, Ruth became devoted to her husband and also devoted to his God. Ruth’s father in-law dies, and then her husband dies, leaving her with a choice: return to Moab to her family of origin, or stay with Naomi, her family by marriage. She chooses Naomi, and by her devotion she is brought into Naomi’s family, marries a kind kinsman named Boaz, and from their line came some important people, like Jesse, and David, ….. and Jesus! That family from Bethlehem, had a lineage that continued all the way to Jesus, born in Bethlehem.

 

Imagine, then, what a surprise it was for a young woman—a girl really—to be visited by an angel! Yes, she was from a family of faith; but no she wasn’t famous, nor was she part of a powerful city. She was from the village of Nazareth, a very small place indeed. She was betrothed—promised to Joseph—in a ceremony that united them to each other but they had not yet become husband and wife. In that setting Mary had her future hopes in her heart, even as she was carrying out household chores. Then she gets the visit of her young lifetime: an angel, not likely a child as in our Christmas plays, but a being of strength. When angels came in mass in the Christmas story they were called “a multitude of the heavenly host.” The Living Bible translated that as “the armies of heaven.” To have even one messenger/soldier of God in one’s presence would be startling; but for a young woman it could have been very unnerving.  The angel offers a greeting of respect: “Hail O favored one, the Lord is with you!” And then this angel who caused Mary to stop what she was doing, delivered Heaven’s birth announcement: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Goodness. In one breath we have the extraordinary event, the gender of the child, and the name of the child!  No other pregnancy starts off with so much information! But this was a pregnancy like no other. Ordinary responses might have included initial fear, some sense of humiliation at the hands of the townspeople, and certain anxiety.  She is whisked out of town to visit a relative who can teach her how to be a mother. And, as God had planned it, although Elizabeth was much older, she was expecting too! She too had a visit from an angel and knew the gender and name her child! His name would be John. Now the two women, young and old, were bonded together. And thus began the nine long months of pregnancy that Mary had, just like every other woman in the world who conceives in her womb. In some ways, other pregnant women could relate to the mother of our Lord. It didn’t take me long to think of a person to ask. What might Mary have gone through in her pregnancy? What issues might have surfaced as she made a journey in her ninth month, perhaps on the back of a donkey?  I didn’t have to look any farther than my own daughter: The Rev. Jenny Sumner Carswell. She is eight and a half months pregnant, also with her first baby: a son! So I asked Jenny, a chaplain who sees women every day, but now also one who is carrying her first-born son, what feelings or thoughts she could share with me.   She was filled with insight and wisdom. Let me let her continue the sermon as she wonders how Mary did what she did:

I hear the Christmas story so often that I haven’t taken much time to reflect on the real life challenges that come with pregnancy and the anticipation of new life. That is, until this year. With only a few weeks until Marshall Conner Carswell’s arrival, I find myself wondering about the Christmas story in ways I hadn’t before…

 

As I manage the aches and pains on my morning commute with heated leather seats and cruise control…

…I wonder how Mary managed her backaches, swollen feet, and morning sickness while riding on a donkey through long, winding, unpaved roads.

 

As I find immediate – yet admittedly not always helpful – answers to my pregnancy-related questions on Google…

…I wonder how Mary managed her anxiety over unanswered questions related to her growing body.

 

As I have the luxury of iPhone pregnancy apps, weekly midwife appointments, and supportive friends and family both in person and over social media…

…I wonder where Mary found emotional support. I wonder which voices, if any, reassured her with the words, “What you’re experiencing is normal.”

 

As I face inappropriate comments (like when people say, “Wow! Are you sure there’s just one baby in there?” And “You look like you’re gonna pop any day!”)…

…I wonder what kind of judgmental comments and glances Mary faced as an unwed, teenage girl whose story was surely unbelievable to many.

 

As I wonder whether I’ll make it to the hospital in time for an epidural…

…I wonder about the panic that comes alongside trying to find a place to birth your child when everyone is telling you they have no room for you. And having to place your newborn child onto hay in a feeding trough. I find myself wondering, “Was it truly a silent night?”

 

As I write this, my right hand is tingling from carpal tunnel syndrome which I’m told is related to swelling. And I’m aching in places I didn’t know could ache…

…and, yet, I feel Marshall blissfully rolling around inside me. Such beauty. Such joy. Such anticipation. I get lost wondering:

What he will look like?

Will he recognize Brian’s and my voices?

What dreams will he have in life?

Will I be enough?

 

So, sweet Mary, I understand you in ways I haven’t been able to before. I know what it’s like to have your body and heart expand simultaneously to make room for your son. I know what it’s like to be in a place of joy and anticipation alongside total panic and uncertainty. In this advent season, my heart is drawn to the mystery of your son’s birth, which is beautifully captured in the song, “Welcome to Our World:”

I hope that you don’t mind our manger
How I wish we would have known
But long-awaited Holy Stranger
Make Yourself at home.

 

Thank you Jenny, for helping us know your bonds of sisterhood in pregnancy with the mother of our Lord.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner/Jenny Sumner Carswell                    December 21, 2014

 

 

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THE WILDMAN TEACHES

John 1: 6-8; 16-27

 

It is with healthy pride that I receive the title of being a Teaching Elder as well as a preacher. Teaching gives others information by which they can make good decisions. But today I want to remind every one of you, every one here on earth, that every one of you is a teacher!  Every person in your life learns something by encountering and interacting with you. They may learn facts or they may learn stories or both. They may learn that your actions match your words, or they may learn otherwise. They may learn integrity from you or perhaps they learn hypocrisy. They may learn that they can trust you, or they may learn that they cannot.  Every one of us learns from each other and teaches one another.  It is a realization that I do not take lightly, nor should you! We are walking billboards for Christ.

 

If you were with me last week you remember that I referred to John the Baptist as “the Wildman.” By his appearance he was a “fringe-looking” man for both the 1st century and the 21st century. He had the appearance that would make people feel threatened or afraid if he approached them. But it wasn’t just his clothing of a camel’s hair cloak, nor was it just his diet of eating locusts and swishing them down with honey. It was his urgency of message and, I suspect, the volume of his message!  I have told some of you about my visits to my grandmother’s Methodist church when I was young. She lived in Georgia and as I sat with her, about 7 rows back from the preacher, the nice man from the first part of the service turned in a man who pounded his pulpit and shouted his sermon with urgency! Of course the only times I had heard a person shout or pound things was when they were mad or when I was in trouble! I cowered under my grandmother’s arm. “Why is he so mad?” I asked her. So today we are noting not only John the Baptist’s appearance, but the way he decided to persuade others. How effective do you think he was? We know that in the days before television, traveling preachers could put on quite a passionate show during their “revivals,” especially tent revivals! People would come, in some cases, because it was free and there was no other show in town! But thanks be to God, some who went to hear such evangelists went away changed; some people were “saved.” If you go to see the film “Unbroken” on Christmas Day or beyond, or if you have read Laura Hillenbrand’s book, you know that Louis Zamperini was changed by going to a Billy Graham revival! We need prophets like John, and we need evangelists like Billy Graham. The one thing they have in common is something we can each learn from them: They each point to Christ. They point to Christ. Let’s examine what John, and others like John, teach.

 

First, John taught that “he came to bear witness to the light, that all may believe.”  John is teaching us this message:  “Bear witness; nothing more, nothing less!” What is meant by that?  If you are doing more than bearing witness to Christ, then you can fall into a trap. That trap is you may forget that you are pointing to the light; some instead start to think that they are the light; that they should get some credit for what they are doing! Then their ego rises and humility drops away. That is not the role of Christian witness; you are to tell others how Christ has changed your life or guides your life! I have seen preachers, and I have seen people other than preachers, who start to bathe in the limelight of the accolades they received from people who are grateful for their teaching. Be careful when that happens! Remember: you and I are to bear witness to the light; we are not the light!

 

Second: John bore witness, and we also are called to bear witness to the light who is Christ: nothing less!  To do less is to say: “I don’t have to invite people to come to church, people can see our car drive away on Sunday mornings; they can tell we are Christians when the phone goes straight to the answering machine on Sundays! That’s the “nothing less” warning: we cannot just expect people to come to Christ on their own! The 1950s church evangelism program for mainline churches was to just list the service times and have the doors open; the big war was over, people were starting families, and nearly everybody went to church on Sundays and businesses were closed. It is not the 1950s any more! We have to get back to the example John set: of opening our mouths to invite people to our church, or opening our mouths to tell others who you came to know Jesus Christ. Sometimes your story is not a flash of lightning! Many times our stories are not “born again” experiences. Do you know how I came to know Jesus? My family moved to St. Louis in 1966 and we couldn’t find a Methodist church close by. Our next-door neighbor came to meet us and invited us to come and try his Presbyterian church the next Sunday! And that’s how I became a Presbyterian, where I was baptized and got married; it was all because someone invited us! He didn’t just let us find a church on our own, nor did he say: “You’ll find the light there!” But we did. We found Jesus there, the light of the world.

 

So the first thing John taught us was: bear witness to the light: nothing more. Don’t allow your ego to be filled when people are grateful that you were a human signpost. The second thing John taught us was: bear witness to the light: nothing less. Don’t buy into the saying “You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips!” In truth, you need both, and they need to line up!  When you tell others about Christ, there needs to be things evident in your life that show that you believe what you are saying! Conversely, if you do Christian things, but you never tell others about Jesus, or your church, or what ways you are serving God, then it is as good as seeing a new person walking questioningly around our church hallways and never asking “May I help you?” Some of the best relationships people have made in our church have been from church members greeting other people and inviting those people to sit with them in church or in fellowship; to join them in a Sunday School class or to come to our Lunch Bunch! We are all about connecting with and inviting others to feel welcome, and to join us as we seek to bear witness to the light.

 

Let’s look at one other thing that John does: he defines his role for those who ask. Someone may ask you: “Why are you telling me about Jesus?” You can reply, “In my church I have grown to know Jesus and love him. He has changed my life, so I’m sharing my story with you!”  Sometimes we think our religious story is personal; do we have the right to tell it to others?  Tot that I say some of the most meaningful mornings the Men of Westminster have had at their breakfast every month is men telling stories about their lives. It is not seen as intrusive; everyone else hangs on every word when someone else is speaking. You are not trying sell Christ to others in a coercive way; you are inviting someone to experience your church and your Savior; both are making a difference in your life! In the first church I served it was a small town. There was one main shoes store in town and one day the owners held an unannounced sale which they almost never did. It was not in the paper; a person either had to be walking by the store to see the “sale” sign, or someone had to tell them about it. Remember: there was no public announcement! That night we had choir practice and in our small choir almost half the women arrived in new shoes! They heard about the sale because one person called another, and one person called another, and so on! That’s what we can do to be a witness to the light: we can tell people about a Lord who is better than a shoe sale! Why not? Why not tell others? John taught others by his example and his words. We are to teach, and to witness as well.  And remember this: if you don’t invite others to your church, someone else will invite them to their church, or to group, perhaps even of some other faith! You do it! You invite them to your church; you tell others how you can to know Jesus. And if you don’t witness to others about having Jesus in your heart, then you are hiding his light under a bushel! Tell others about Jesus! Do it so other also have the chance to turn from darkness toward light, and from destructive actions to life-giving actions! Who knew how much we could learn ………………. from a wildman.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                December 14, 2014

 

 

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THE WILDMAN COMETH

Mark 1: 1-8

 

In our world it is often hard to tell the good people from the not so good people. Some good people dress in suits or dresses; but some deceptive people can dress that way too. Some good people have tattoos and dreadlocks while some deceptive people have no body markings and traditional haircuts. Are the police good, or are the people of a community good?  Are government officials good, or are the people who elected them good? Are church leaders good and are church members trustworthy? Soon the questions can get as confusing as the answers. Growing up I was told “You can’t judge a book by its cover” but the actions of those who said those words taught me that often that was exactly what they were doing. In our world people often judge people by the way they look. I have heard people pronounce judgment on the length or style of one’s hair, on their chains or piercings, or any number of criteria. It may be hard for you to believe but at one point in my life I had hair on my head! On the first meeting I had with the man who would become my father-in –law, he judged me as sub-standard, and he told me so to my face that day!  It was because my hair in the back was longer than the top of the collar of my shirt. Judging, categorizing, or dismissing people because of the way they dress, or the way the wear their hair, or the way they look was the troublesome thing that I observed when I was young. But, as the Apostle Paul put it “When I became a man I gave up childish ways.” (1 Corinthians 13) More directly, I worked to be less affected by what people thought of me. I am not perfect in not judging others. But my problem is how many grown people judge books by their covers and people by their appearances. When they do that, it encourages youth in middle and high schools, and children in elementary schools to do the same things. Jesus once said “And a little child shall lead them.” I hope boys and girls of all ages here today will decide to boldly set good examples of not judging others by their hair or what they wear or what lunch they like or what phone they may or may not have. Show the world how to value people for who they are. We need some people to trust because of the truth and values they display. How can we identify such people?

 

Today we have a problem: a prophet who recognized Jesus as the Messiah was not a minister or a rabbi or a government official. He looked like someone that adults in my past might have whispered in my young ear: “We should walk on the other side of the street, away from that frightening looking man!”  His name was John; that doesn’t seem too threatening; it’s a good name! But this John was not dressed in Brooks Brothers, or Liz Claiborne, or even Old Navy. He wore camel’s hair clothing. Camel’s hair is not the smoothest fur I’ve ever felt; in addition, we aren’t told how stringy or modest this garment was. It was cinched by a leather belt; that’s the most normal part of his clothing! I have learned that there are many wonderful and healthy ways to eat, and peopleoften have a passion for their choices.  But John ate “locusts!” I admit there is probably some protein in them, but it sounds more like an “Amazing Race” challenge than a regular diet. To wash those bugs down, John swallowed honey. I don’t know if he grabbed it straight out of a beehive or not! So if we are not to judge people by what they wear or how they look, by what measure can we judge?

 

First, for those who are preachers, prophets, or evangelists, are their words grounded in the Bible? Let’s check John. In spite of how he looked, he quotes words from one of the Bible’s greatest prophets: Isaiah. He doesn’t look it up on his phone or open a book, he quotes Isaiah because he knows that passage; it’s committed to memory. John deserves a second look.

 

Next, does the person acknowledge that “all have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God?” The apostle Paul did acknowledge that with those words, and John did so with different words. We are nothing without God; and we are like helpless sheep without a shepherd! So someone who is humble enough to say we can do nothing without God is worth a second look.

 

Finally, does the person have a humble spirit? In the Blue Presbyterian Hymnals used for 24 years, a refrain to Psalm 51 had the people proclaiming to God “The sacrifice you accept O God is a humble spirit.”  The greatest stumbling block in the way of some is tripping over their own ego! John especially compared himself to Jesus with these words: “I’m not even worthy to untie his shoes.” Now that’s a clear comparison!

This season, you may see people in tailored clothes or in tattered clothes: welcome them, judging their character with discernment. This season we have a chance to hear good words from a mangy looking prophet. John’s clothes were rough, but his message points in the right direction. This year, the North Pole is not just included in stories about a jolly man who gives Christmas gifts. It’s the magnet that guides us to “true north;” to discern the content of a person’s character. And perhaps that Godly gift of wisdom, displayed by John, is one of the greatest gifts of all.  Have your eyes open, and your heart and mind engaged this season.  Angels surround us!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                December 7, 2014