Monthly Archives: August 2015

08-30-15 A LOVE SONG FOR GOD

A LOVE SONG FOR GOD

Song of Songs 2: 8-13

 

In 1542, a man small of stature but strong in spiritual strength as an adult was born in a Fontiveros, a small village near Avila, Spain.  He was Juan de Yepes, the youngest of three brothers, and as he grew, his sharp intellect and his passion for causes became apparent. At age 21 the administrator at a local hospital urged him to be ordained to become a chaplain, but Juan felt more called to the contemplative life. He entered the local Carmelite monastery there. He grew in wisdom and connected with Teresa of Avila.  She was working to reform the Carmelite monasteries and Juan joined the cause. The resistance to return to stricter standards was great, but Juan, who history knows as John of the Cross, and Teresa, persevered to their own harm. The Spanish Inquisition took a dim view of such reforms and ordered them to cease and desist. When John refused to stray from their established strict reforms, he was captured by an emissary of the church leaders and imprisoned in the Carmelite priory in Toledo, Spain. That action was done under the authority of the church of the day! His prison was a privy, a toilet the walls of which were six feet wide by ten feet across. It was in that cell, in total darkness except for a very small crack of light high on one wall, that St. John of the Cross encountered God in an extraordinary way and wrote about “the dark night of the soul.” John’s familiarity with the Song of Songs in the Bible perhaps influenced his experience in the dark night, for the dark times when he felt far away from God, or when God was hidden from him, eventually evolved into a kind of “love affair” with, or a deep appreciation for God, surrounded by a sense of love and light. It is this event that came out of what John called his  “dark night of the soul.”

 

But today I want to suggest that sometimes we are poor at telling those we love that we love them!  Remember the scene in “Fiddler on the Roof?” Tevye sings to Golda, his wife of twenty-five years: “Do you love me?

It’s a new world… A new world. Love. Golde…”

 

Do you love me?

(Golde)

Do I what?

(Tevye)

Do you love me?

(Golde)

Do I love you?

With our daughters getting married

And this trouble in the town

You’re upset, you’re worn out

Go inside, go lie down!

Maybe it’s indigestion

(Tevye)

“Golde I’m asking you a question…”

Do you love me?

(Golde)

You’re a fool

(Tevye)

“I know…”

But do you love me?

(Golde)

Do I love you?

For twenty-five years I’ve washed your clothes

Cooked your meals, cleaned your house

Given you children, milked the cow

After twenty-five years, why talk about love right now?

 

Love. Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously wrote:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.

I love thee to the level of every day’s

Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.

I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;

I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.

I love with a passion put to use

In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.

I love thee with a love I seemed to lose

With my lost saints, — I love thee with the breath,

Smiles, tears, of all my life! — and, if God choose,

I shall but love thee better after death.

In 1970 teenagers flocked to see Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw in the tear jerker movie “Love Story,” where their characters, Oliver and Jenny, foolishly taught the movie audiences:  “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Was that love?

 

In 1996 people of all ages read the Nicholas Sparks book called, The Notebook or saw the movie, learning about the incredible love Noah had for Allie.  And radio stations and I-Pods are often filled with love songs. Love songs have been written since time began, and they are still being written! Songs, poems, films and bestsellers continue to use love as a subject. But sometime these portrayals stay romantic rather than realistic. More often than not, human love is offered with conditions; when that is the arrangement, it is called: “conditional love.” “I’ll love you if you do this, or if you don’t do that.”  We do it to our children, to our husbands, to our wives, and to our friends. Many counselors and therapists say that’s not “real” love.

There is another kind that is: it’s “unconditional love,” love that is offered with no conditions: that is harder to find!  It is, however, found in the wide-open arms of Jesus on the cross. It is also found on his lips when he taught: “Love God with all your heart, your soul, your mind, and your strength.” That’s pure love.  There are still cases in the world where a parent loves like that, or a spouse or friend loves like that. That is grand, but rare.

 

So how can we, children of God, disciples of Jesus, or those curious about Jesus, offer love to God, or to Jesus? And what form should it take?

Today we learn from a biblical songwriter in a small book called Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon. It is included in our Old Testaments. The 12th century commentator, William of St. Thierry, said that this writer wrote words “wholly without modesty.” This book, though not pornographic, is intensely descriptive of physical love. Perhaps that will draw you to read this book! Or perhaps it will repel you not to! According to one source, the Song of Songs is one of the three most commented-upon books in the Bible. Even though it is nothing like any other Biblical book, the so-called Church Fathers decided it was worthy to keep in.  And it has become providentially important. Our daughter, Jenny, a Presbyterian minister, insisted that a passage from this book be used at her wedding. Fine singing groups with whom I have been associated have sung a selection from this book that can melt one’s soul: “Set Me as a Seal Upon Thine Heart.” And one small man, confined to biblical and spiritual readings, found these words contained in the Song of Songs so moving that he memorized them! He was not planning to marry, so it wasn’t to learn a love song for a lover. Instead, his memory banks became a wealth of information in one terrible time in his life.  During that time, at first he felt like God had disappeared; he believed that he could no longer hear God, and that he could no longer see evidence of God’s presence as he had before. Of course this was in that dank, torture chamber for eight months with almost no light.  Perhaps, almost like the gift of an angel, the words of the Song of Songs flooded his mind. Instead of thinking the beloved was another human being, he decided his beloved was God! God had not deserted him, he decided! God was with him! And he wanted to love and adore God, a natural state of praise for human beings. But in his location and with an invisible God, the setting was not conducive and there he was too constrained to do much physically. So he sang! He sang like Paul once sang in prison according to Acts 16! John sang, and perhaps spoke to God. And in so doing, he used the Song of Songs as a basis for a love poem he wrote!  It was so powerful to him, and his time so focused, that he memorized his words. When he finally escaped from prison, he wrote down his words and he commented on them all. It is contained in his classic masterpieces called The Dark Night of the Soul and The Living Flame of Love. Canadian singer and songwriter Loreena McKennitt read the works of John of the Cross and used them as a basis for her own song. A stanza of her work goes like this:

Upon a darkened night, the flame of love was burning in my breast;

          And by a lantern bright, I fled my house while all in quiet rest.

          Shrouded by the night, and by the secret stair I quickly fled,

          The veil concealed my eyes, while all within lay quiet in the dead.

          O night, thou was my guide! O night more loving than the rising sun.

          O night that joined the lover to the beloved one,

          Transforming each of them into the other.

 

So, the Bible has a love song that many interpreters say is a love song to God. A biblical man, St. John of the Cross, had his spirit and perhaps his life saved by remembering that love song and then composing his own. And others, like Loreena McKennitt, picked up on those words and turned them into an interpretation all their own.  No matter who you love, remember to say it and show it genuinely and sincerely. It’s not just a Valentine’s Day thing to do! And when it comes to your Creator, or your Savior, how might you show your love? With words; with actions; with both? Children of all ages can show kindness to others, and tell others about Jesus; they can sing a simple song of adoration like “Jesus I adore you, lay my life before you; how I love you!” Some of you grew up with an old hymn with the first line that goes like this: “My Jesus I love Thee I know Thou art mine—For Thee all the follies of sin I resign; my gracious Redeemer, my Savior art Thou: If ever I loved Thee, my Jesus, ‘tis now.”  How ever you do express it, let Jesus know of your love for him! Let him know it if you feel his love too, and let that love overflow to others.  Love is one emotion, like an eternal well, that will not run dry; there is plenty to share. When you share your love with others, consider also the ways you can show love and gratitude for your Savior.

Let us pray:

Ah Holy Jesus, we pause to consider how much you loved us; so much that you gave up your life for us! Such love is the ultimate love. Now we hope you will know our hearts, and even see words we write or words we say or sing: we adore you, love you, and thank you. In a world when love notes and thank you notes are mailed less and less often, we are letting you know our feelings now.  Until we tell you again, please don’t forget it Lord: we love you! Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 30, 2015

08-23-15 A DAY OF HONORING GOD

A DAY OF HONORING GOD

1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-12; 22-26

 

Years ago, in 1956, an English minister named J. B. Phillips wrote a timeless and readable book he called Your God is Too Small.”  In it, he addressed the way people in that decade, and to a large degree people in our decade, think of God.  He has two parts to his book. Part One is called “Destructive,” said to describe our “unreal gods;” his chapter headings are intriguing: God as a “Resident  Policeman,” a “Parental Hangover,” a “Grand Old Man,” Mr. Meek and Mild,” “Absolute Perfection,” Managing Director,” and seven other chapters that he unpacks. He believes, as many in our day believe, that God’s role in our world is one or more of those titles.  And to all of those titles Phillips calls out to the readers who believe that: “YOUR GOD IS TOO SMALL!”  He leads readers to new biblical insights into the nature of God, not the God people made him to be, but the one who God actually is.  It is a temptation to make God into our image, instead of acknowledging that we are made in God’s image. To correct the misconceptions of the 1950 (and I suggest today as well,) Part Two of his book is called “Constructive,” with the subtitle: “An Adequate God.” There he gives more realistic chapters: “God Unfocused,” “A Clue to Reality,” ‘Is There a Focused God?”  “Christ and the Question of Sin,” “The Abolition of Death,” and eleven other chapters! I think Phillips has a point, one enlightened by our 1 Kings text today.  We want to keep God in our Bibles, or in our pocket with a cross, or around our necks, or in our sanctuaries or chapels. But God is bigger than that!  In our Confirmation Class two years ago, Mary Ann and I would call out situations in the world that seemed impossible to solve. The kids will call out in loud voices in response to our despair: “God is bigger than that!”  Today we learn that even in the days of the people of Israel, God was not just in heaven. God was with the chosen people. And later we learn how God dwelled on the earth … and still does! So let’s take the idea that God only resides in Heaven; that one can only approach God in churches or cathedrals; that we can create space for God to just live in a Bible or a locket, and learn today that “God is bigger than that!” Today we seek to honor the one true God!

 

This morning our sanctuary includes a replica of the Ark of the Covenant; it was a moveable box, built to exact specifications, according to God’s instructions, that would contain the tablets Moses received on Mount Sinai when God gave him the Ten Commandments.  Israelites, and later the Jews, called those Commandments “God’s Law.” God’s people believed that God’s presence was with them when the Ark was in front of their journeys.   This was not a box God lived in; it was an Ark that carried the reminder of God’s presence and protection.  The Bible records that when the chosen people had battles with others, they honored God by keeping God present, not just with the Ark, but also in leather pouches lashed to their foreheads and spiritually in their hearts. They believed if they removed their sacred pieces from their bodies, or failed to put the ark in front of their battles, they would be defeated.  In our day those who hear a message and believe it on Sunday, but live as if they have not heard it on Monday, will find God’s presence withdrawn from their lives as well.

 

The Israelites remembered, and put rituals into place, to honor God on the Sabbath: for Jews it was from sundown Friday until night on Saturday. They had a time for honoring God and places to honor God.  If ever they were delivered from a foe, they thanked God for it and erected boulders that they called “altars,” or “standing stone,” to indicate to future generations that God delivered his people in that place from some calamity. You can find those stones (if they haven’t been destroyed) across Israel and neighboring countries. How do you remember times when God has delivered or healed you or someone else?  Do you have a ritual for remembering what God has done in your life? A keepsake; a plaque; a diary or a blog?

 

The late German Theologian Gerhard von Rad describes “The Tent, the Ark, and the Glory of God” this way:

The tabernacle is not a tent in the full sense of the term….It consisted

of a massive frame of boards overlaid with gold ….Here stood the

Ark, a rectangular wooden casket, 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ broad, and

1 ½ high, which could be carried by means of long poles.

[OLD TESTAMENT THEOLOGY, Harper & Row, 1962, vol. 1, pp.

234-235]

The poles were a very important part of the set up. God had not just picked a place, called it holy, and said, “I will live here; you come to see me here!” No; God said, in effect, “Take me with you; I want to be where you are, and you will certainly want me to be where you are!” That’s what the poles indicate. The Ark of the Covenant includes angels on top to indicate the presence of God. The Ark was not intended to be mainly a shrine for people to travel miles to visit. Those who were thinking that God would just live in a tabernacle or a temple were limiting our limitless God! But as the Jews settled around Jerusalem, they lost their need to travel and escape. So a Temple was built to protect the Ark and to invite the faithful to, symbolically, come closer to God. Likewise, even though our world has wonderful sanctuaries, cathedrals, and chapels where people can come for reflection or prayer, they are intended to point to God, be a catalyst for our spiritual lives and to lift our drooping heads up! They become destinations in and of themselves, place where people still go to find a sense of the Holy. Yes, we can take God with us, in a manner of speaking, as we carry Bibles, cell phones, crosses, or computers. But worship of God has a always involved a community! Some people say they can worship God on golf courses, in theme parks, or other places. They can; that is, if they set their clubs down, or their fast passes down, move to a corner of the property, gather at least three other people, set up a focal point of an altar, a cross, a bowl of water, or a table,  and worship the God who is with you even there!  It takes focus to honor God, not just a glib mention. Or you can go to a house of worship, where others come seeking God and community, and use that time for focused worship.

 

Houses of worship are built carefully and prayerfully. In 1 Kings we read about Solomon constructing the Temple of God, a task David was not allowed to do. Solomon believed that it honored God to create a house for God. And it did.  But the poles on the Ark should never be forgotten: God always wants to go with us into the world, not be left behind! Like the Scripture tags children and youth got today as they prepare for school, think of God as going with you, not staying in church or in an Ark of the Covenant! Theologians say this chapter points to God’s immanence which means that God is near; and God’s transcendence, meaning God is here, there, and everywhere; that God is holy.  Professor Richard D. Nelson asks: “How can the God who remains mysterious and awesome, who refuses to be contained by creation, still be closely present to love and save us? … Solomon insists that even the whole universe cannot contain God. God is only ‘symbolically present’ in the temple through the divine name.”  [INTERPRETATION, First and Second Kings, John Knox Press, p. 59.]

 

An old hymn suggests: “Take the Name of Jesus With You.” But today’s text reminds us also that, through the ages, people have created inspiring places to honor God. That is good too.  Find the place, find the time, and find the words to honor God. It can happen at church, at home, at work, at play … or at school.  Call on, and praise the Living God!

 

Let us pray:  Dear God: we are learning that prayerful reception is not really stronger in a church building than in our homes, but sometimes being in the midst of praying people helps our souls and lifts our spirits. We are glad to share this time, away from the din and demands of the world, with others. Teach us not just to talk in prayer, but also to listen; listen closely for your voice that is often best heard in silence.  As the Psalmist said: “The Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A, Sumner                                                          August 21, 2015

 

 

08-16-15 HOW SOLOMON GOT HIS WISDOM

HOW SOLOMON GOT HIS WISDOM

I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

 

In the summer of 1934, a Protestant minister preached a sermon and led the prayers in a small church near his summer home in Heath, Massachusetts. His name was Reinhold Niebuhr. At the end of the service, as happens in many churches, the visiting minister stood at the door and greeted the congregants as they departed.  One man held up the line for a minute: “Dr. Niebuhr,” he said, “My name is Bill. I appreciated your sermon, but really appreciated your prayer! At your convenience, could I get a copy of it?” The minister reached into his coat pocket, and pulled out the prayer. “Here,” Dr. Niebuhr said, “You may have it.” The man walked away gratefully.  His name was Bill; his last name started with a W. If you have ever seen announcements of meetings on cruise ships or in public places with the invitation to “Join the Friends of Bill W,” you have found a Twelve Step program, usually related to Alcoholics Anonymous. And the prayer that Bill W. got from that visiting minister in 1934? It’s the prayer being studied in our summer Sunday school classes:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can change, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” The “Serenity Prayer” has been said in countless meetings and printed on millions of cards. And it was written by a visiting minister in a small New England church who asked for no credit when he gave it to a man named Bill. The key to the prayer hinges on the word “wisdom;” an insight into what things you can change, and what things that you do not have the power to change. Another way to think about “wisdom” is the way I explained to the children: learning how to make good daily choices. Our children and their spouses speak to their pre-school children with a daily sentence of instruction: “Make good choices!” they say as their son starts his day.  “Make good choices!” is wisdom for any one of us as we start each day. People who do that embody wisdom; not making impulsive decisions, or hurtful ones, or destructive ones; nor procrastinating too long before deciding to do something time-sensitive or important.  Wisdom gives the appropriate weight of time to light decisions, such as “What will I have for breakfast?” and more time to weighty decisions such as “What will I do with my life?”  But wisdom, it seems, is in short supply in our day: there are people each day trying to text and drive; people each day reaching for a gun instead of starting a discussion; people letting their life be guided by television characters rather than being mentored by real people they may admire. The Bible has taught that part of wisdom is honoring God, listening to God’s words, and following God’s commandments.  It’s usually listed in parts of the Bible known as the “Wisdom Literature,” including Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. But today, in the book of First Kings, we find some answers to where Solomon, often considered to be one of the wisest men in the Bible, found his wisdom. We can learn from what Solomon did.

 

Here is the background. One of the greatest of Israel’s kings was a man chosen through God because of his pure heart. His name was David.  He was but a boy when he was chosen. Although David was a good king of Israel, he was not a flawless king. Except for Jesus, no king has been shown to be flawless. But David learned, and led; sinned and repented; started young and grew old.  In 1 Kings chapter 2, we read “When David’s time to die drew near, he charged Solomon, his son, saying ‘I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, have courage, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the Law of Moses, that you may prosper in all that you do ….”  With bookshelves lined with self-help books, and blogs that describe people’s journeys or give people advice, there is still one book, the best book, from which wisdom comes: The Bible, that contains the statutes, commandments, ordinances, and testimonies of God and of people who listened to God!” Even before we had the Lord Jesus, we had the first five books of Scripture that contained the commandments and the Laws. Jesus was taught them as a boy. But as sometimes happens, laws can start to be interpreted rigidly instead of lovingly or carefully. So Jesus, grounded in those commandments, showed us how to follow them. And so did Solomon for those who read his wise words. Solomon became King of Israel after his father. And although he was a good king throughout his life, in the beginning he was a very wise king! Let’s read what he did. According to 1 Kings 3, “Solomon loved the Lord.”  Do you love your Lord?  How do you show it? It is not helpful when people say they love someone with their words, and yet they ignore them, or turn away from them, or are hateful toward them. How do you show love? Now, once you have that in mind, how do you show your love to your Lord? Part of showing love is worshipping, praying to, learning from, and listening to your Lord. How are you doing? If God were asked on a scale of 1 to 10 if you loved him, what would God say about you? I have to consider what God would say about me too! Wise people of faith love their Lord and they show it. Next, the Bible says, “Solomon walked in the statutes of his father David.” Do you have a father, mother, teacher, counselor, or grandparent you admire; someone who, in your mind, makes good choices?  Use that person as a bit of a template for your life, not doing everything they do, but being inspired by them who have walked life’s paths ahead of you. I’ve done that before; I still do. In the 21st century I can’t always decide what Jesus would do in a situation, but I can be guided by human beings around me who I respect. So I try to make good choices based on good examples around me. You can too. As part of wisdom, Solomon watched and learned from his father.  Wise people learn about making choices by others who have done it well before them. Then the Bible says that Solomon made sacrifices, many of them, to the Lord throughout his life.  In his day it was burnt offerings, financial offerings, and time offerings. In our day a sacrifice to your Lord might be honoring him by keeping a regular Sabbath, one where you pause, give thanks, and give praise. Another sacrifice is time. Giving time back to God in worship or service shows that a priority has been made beyond yourself. Wise people remember to serve God and others in addition to attending to their soul with Sabbath and rest and play. Solomon knew how to play and rest, but first he remembered how to serve God. What a good example! According to our passage today from 1 Kings 3: David was constantly praying to God and giving honor to his father David.  Listen: Solomon said this to God: “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant David, my father, because he walked before you in faithfulness and righteousness and in uprightness of heart … and you gave him me as a son to sit on his throne …. Although I am but a little child (notice his humility before God), give me, your servant, an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil ….”

Wonderful: he is prayerful; he is humble; and he is open to God’s guidance. Well, there we have it, don’t we? Solomon got his wisdom in great part because he honored his father, turned to God, believed himself to be a servant of the Lord, understood that he was leading not his people, but God’s people, and asked for a mind to discern between good and evil.

 

That’s how Solomon got his wisdom. We may go and do likewise, following him, or following another wise mentor. Or, you can consider following the simple instructions given to the children today: Make good choices! May God be honored and others be blessed when you accept the things you cannot change, have the courage to change the things you can, and find the wisdom to know the difference.

 

Let us pray:

You are immortal, and invisible and wise, O God. Send forth messages that guide us toward good choices; ones that honor others, respect self, and praise you, the source of our life and love. Through Jesus Christ we pray.

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 14, 2015

08-09-15 1 Kings 19: 9-18

Elijah, the famous prophet of our lesson this morning, leads a very interesting life. Before this passage begins, Elijah has already been through a lot. He raised someone from the dead. He has been fighting against the establishment of Queen Jezebel and the foreign gods she brought with her into the country when she married King Ahab. And right before this passage, he challenged the priests of Baal, Queen Jezebel’s favorite god, to a sort of god duel. “Look” he said “I know that my God is real and yours is not. And I can prove it.”

 

So the priests of Baal set up an altar and Elijah set up an altar. And the priests of Baal prayed and prayed and prayed, but nothing happened. Elijah covered his altar with water. So much water that it pooled around the logs. And then he prayed, and God sent a lightning bolt and lit his altar on fire.

 

He won the duel. And those who were there and followed God celebrated. But Queen Jezebel was not happy. She was not happy at all. She sent a message to Elijah saying she would kill him for what he had done.

 

Elijah, understandably, fled the country to save his life. He flees, but not just in any direction. He flees to a special place, a place to hear the divine voice once again. He journeys to Mount Horeb, more famously known as Mount Sinai, the mountain where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. If there is ever a place where he can hear the voice of God, Mount Horeb is it.Which is how we come upon him hiding in a cave up a mountain in today’s passage. He is legitimately afraid of what will happen to him

 

Elijah receives Jezebel’s message and interprets it as the end of his ministry. If he can win the kind of decisive victory he won on Mount Carmel, and the battle not be over, what more can he do? Elijah dismisses his servant at Beersheba, signifying that he is abandoning his ministry altogether. He has  emotional whiplash. One moment, he was proving God’s glory and everyone was cheering and the next minute he’s being threatened with execution.

 

Elijah was in a dark place, both literally and figuratively. Yes, he was hiding in a cave in a mountain far away from his people, but he was also in a dark place in his soul.  One of those places where he wondered if any thing he ever did mattered.. He was full of despair, and when God sought him out, Elijah poured out his woes to God.

 

“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”  The fear for his life is understandable, but the rest of his statement was the kind of self-pity we get when we are depressed and it feels like nothing is going our way. The thing is, Elijah was not the only one. There were followers of God at his demonstration. And upon seeing what Elijah did, all of the Israelites gathered proclaimed  “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God”

 

I mean, how excited would you be if we had a moment where we set up a test for God and God came through so spectacularly? You would be singing from the rooftops about how very awesome your God is. As a religious leader, it was the perfect time for Elijah to stay with them, fanning the fire of their faith and teaching them more about God, now that they realized who the true God is.

 

But instead, Elijah is justifiably fearful of execution, and runs away. He runs to save his life and despairs of what he could do. That is the Elijah God comes to today. And God calls Elijah out.

 

This is the part of the passage that most of us have heard before.

 

First comes all of the classic dramatic revelations of God. There is a mighty wind, but God doesn’t come in that.  There is an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake.  Finally, there is a roaring fire, but unlike with Moses, God doesn’t come in the fire.

 

Instead, God comes in what is unexpected. God comes in the sound of sheer silence after the drama. God is not always in the dramatic.Sometimes God is in the quiet ordinary moments.

 

Now, there are times God is made known to us in the bells and whistles of the dramatic. At other times God is found in the sound of sheer silence. Sometimes God is made known to us is subtle, silent ways, unspectacular ways through the quiet workings of people’s lives. Sometimes God speaks through the thunder of miraculous events like walking on water and resurrection. At other times God speaks to us in the ordinary events of a child born in Bethlehem or a man, like so many Jewish men of his day, crucified on a cross.

 

God is speaking to us. God is leading us, even still today. But are we listening? Sometimes it is difficult. We get too caught up in the clutter around us. We also forget that in the midst of life’s difficulties, God is still leading and speaking and calling.

 

There is an apocryphal story of several applicants seeking a position as a ship’s Morse Code operator. While they’re waiting to be interviewed, the room is filled with the sounds of conversation, and so they’re oblivious to the sound of dots and dashes emanating from an intercom. Then another applicant comes in, sits down, quietly waiting. Suddenly, she jumps up, walks into the private office, and after a few minutes, walks out with the job.

 

The other applicants exclaim, “We were here first! How could you go ahead of us and get the job?” To which she replies, “Any of you could have gotten the job if you had just been quiet long enough to pay attention to the message on the intercom.” “What message?” “The code said, ‘A ship’s operator must always be on the alert. The first person who gets this message and comes directly into my office will get the job.'”

 

Sometimes only in the silence, can we hear.

 

When was the last time you found yourself in silence? I bet it’s been awhile. Even if you sit quietly in a room, you might hear the hum of the air conditioner, the tick of a fan. Perhaps the sounds of cars down the street.

 

It’s hard to find that silence because we don’t live in a world for silence. Noise pollution is a very real thing in this world. There are very few places left where you can go and not hear the sound of traffic, or airplanes, or other human inventions. And we like having the noise to drive away the silence, don’t we? We turn on TVs in empty houses, wear headphones whenever we go out.

 

We keep our ears and our brains so occupied that we don’t have to deal with silence. Because silence is hard. Silence is uncomfortable. We can’t control what happens in the silence. What we might think about in the silence.

 

And yet, we need to hear God and God cannot always be found in the noise. I’ve been going through an eight week series on the classical prayer discipline of Lectio Divinia. In it, you read the scriptures slowly, meditating on their meaning for you today. The last step is one of silence, where you still yourself and just listen.

 

I found it the hardest of all the steps, and yet, as I am in my sixth week, I find it grows easier. I actually begin to look forward to that silence. For that time of peace before I start my day. It helps to ground me in my faith for whatever may come. Because it doesn’t end with the silence. After the silence, we have to go and do.

 

Because God didn’t just leave Elijah in despair in the cave. God came to Elijah and after the silence, he gave him a purpose. He told him where to go, and gave him another to anoint so he would not be alone.

 

This all seems to give Elijah some hope. He leaves the cave. He goes to find Elisha, and together they continue to serve the Lord. Rather than condemning Elijah for running away, for complaining, for wanting to die, God comes and says, “Go and do my work. I’m still going to use you. I’m still with you.”

 

We all have days when we feel like Elijah. When we are depressed, or defeated, or positive that nothing we have done has mattered. On days like those, we all want to retreat to our dark caves, to find a way to hide from the world.

 

Yet God comes to us. God is present with us in comfort and then calls us forward into new life.  God can and does speak to us in the unexpected ways. Sometimes God speaks to us through a friend, or a passage of scripture, or a song. And sometimes God speaks to us in the silence.

 

To end this morning, I want to take a minute of silence. Sixty seconds to just listen for the still small voice.

 

Amen.

 

08-02-15 BAPTISM BY GRACE

— sermon audio not available —

BAPTISM BY GRACE

Ephesians 4: 1- 13

 

In Laura Hillenbrand’s powerful non-fiction bestseller “Unbroken,” she recounts what, in my mind, was one of the most powerful events in the life of Louis Zamperini. It was left out of the movie. Zamperini, survivor of weeks adrift at sea without food and water, was captured by the Japanese during World War II and brutally tortured in a camp by a deranged leader that he just called “The Bird.”  Many other men might have broken, or been a seething mess of bitterness after that experience.  He was that way too, that is, until he happened to visit a Billy Graham Crusade in California. Here is what happened as he heard the life-changing message:

 

“He felt words whisper from his swollen lips. It was a promise thrown at heaven, a promise he had not kept, a promise he had allowed himself to forget until that instant: If you will save me, I will serve you forever. And then, standing under a circus tent on a clear night in Los Angeles, Louis felt rain falling. [He turned toward Billy Graham who said] ‘This is it. God has spoken to you. You come on.’ [His wife Cynthia] kept her eyes on Louie all the way home. When they entered the apartment, Louie went straight for his cache of liquor. It was the time of night when the need usually took hold of him, but for the first time in years, Louie had not desire to drink. He carried the bottles to the kitchen sink, opened them, and poured the contents down the drain. Then he hurried through the apartment gathering packs of cigarettes … and heaved it all down the trash chute. In the morning he awoke feeling cleansed. For the first time in years the Bird hadn’t come into his dreams. The Bird would never come again.”  [Random House, 2010, 375,376]

 

Sometimes such powerful events are associated with “Born Again” experiences. Sometimes people have life-changing events that they attribute to meeting the risen Christ, as happened to the Apostle Paul in Acts chapter nine. But Acts is also filled with number of people who are saved and/or baptized not because of a born again experience, but because they instead want to follow Jesus and come to know the grace of God. Today we will look briefly at the subject of baptism.

 

The main place people turn to learn about baptism is in one of the Gospels, where the man called John the Baptist was baptizing his followers. But he clearly was baptizing people in a baptism of repentance. John said in Matthew chapter 3 verse 11: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit …” Isn’t it interesting that Christianity has based most of its standards for baptism on John’s baptism instead of the baptism Jesus taught his disciples to offer? In the Acts of the Apostles, one of the last things Jesus taught before his ascension was that “John baptized with water, but before long you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” [Acts1: 5] And indeed that happened at Pentecost. But what else happened in Acts? As Peter preached to those in Jerusalem, he exhorted them to “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” So one way we carry on baptism is with a declaration of repentance or a renunciation of a past life and an embracing of a new life. That is one way that the church still baptizes. Another reason to baptize is to welcome someone into the family of God. In Acts chapter 8 an Ethiopian, who was the treasurer for his queen and her government, was a non-believer. But he was curious, and then he was interested. He was reading Scripture when one of Jesus’ apostles, Philip, ran up to him. Philip helped him understand what he was reading and the Ethiopian asked “Is anything to prevent me from being baptized?” [Acts 8:37] They was some water nearby, and Philip baptized the man with the water. The Bible says that the Holy Spirit was present at that baptism; afterward the same Spirit filled Philip, and the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing!” A baptism of grace.  Another way Christian baptism was carried out was taught by Paul to the Corinthians. “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” he asked them. They said they had never heard of a Holy Spirit. He then asked “Into what were you baptized?” and they admitted: “Into John’s baptism.” Notice that Paul is not willing to leave them in that kind of baptism! He instructed them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And they were.

 

So friends, we pull from every biblical source for our understanding of baptism. There are times when someone wants to be baptized to turn from a different life. We do those baptisms. And there are times when young persons, or adults, or even children, are presented, or present themselves, as ones who are entering the Christian family. We do those baptisms too. But we do all the baptisms, no matter the style, using the words Jesus himself used in the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18. Jesus said: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me. Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And so we do. Today we baptize as Jesus taught; and we share the Lord’s Supper to which we are invited once we are baptized into the Christian family! What a celebration! If you haven’t been baptized, consider officially entering the family of Christ! And if you already have, then prepare your heart for the upcoming joyful feast of the people of God.

 

Let us pray:

Like grace before a meal, O Lord, we ask for your blessing. Help those who have grown in their baptism claim its promises; those who are young grow into them, and those not baptized consider the step that even Jesus himself took.  Set our Communion elements apart from common use to this Holy use, that they may nourish our souls for our service to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In His name we pray.  Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          August 2, 2015