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Matthew 1: 18-25

A gathering of strangers, friends, extended family, and acquaintances; that’s what Christmas Eve is so often at Westminster By-The-Sea. Not that that’s all bad! But many who are with us week in and week out are gone for Christmas. In fact, you’ll get a prelude to Christmas today so those who are always gone get to hear the our wonderful Director of Music offer the beloved “O Holy Night.”  Our choir gets smaller on Christmas Eve instead of larger. Our pews are filled with wonderful people; some regulars, some occasionals some annuals! So next weekend—Christmas weekend—we might be a gathering of strangers, friends, and extended family—not unlike Bethlehem in the time when Caesar Augustus called for a census.  The first Christmas was a gathering of people away from home; some very far from home. So all is well! In a way we are all connected—people again gathering to remember who we are and to remember why Jesus Christ is still the center of the human race. In a way, those who came to Bethlehem were also connected: people of the house and lineage of David, called together to be taxed and to take roll.

It seems that issues regarding the family surround us annually, especially in political years. There are statistics for married people and one harder to tabulate of people married but separated. There are those who live together; and there are those who are single, divorced, or widowed. The Bible, in fact, describes some strange family situations in the Old Testament! But today in Matthew’s gospel, we learn there is a special role for the person who marries a woman who has a child or is about to have a child: that role is of step-father. When you think about it, a man loving and helping to guide the child from his beloved is not new. It even happened in the Christmas story. Jesus had a step-father. His name was Joseph.

The late Professor Emeritus of Pittsburgh Seminary, Douglas Hare writes :

In Matthew’s story of the miraculous conception [otherwise known as the virgin birth] Joseph becomes aware of the pregnancy before he learns the cause. His immediate response is that of a “just” man: he would “dismiss her” that is, let her out of her engagement promise. [This means he would stop his plans to marry her, for they were not yet officially married.] It is not out of anger that he resolves to terminate the relationship but out of deep religious conviction. No matter how much he still loves Mary, it is his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract.

Some of Mary’s statements in Luke indicate that she regards herself as a  willing recipient of the message the angel brought (“I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Luke 1:38), “Matthew, on the other hand, by selecting Joseph as his leading actor, stresses the active component in the human response. Three times Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he must do something!” [Hare]

Now Joseph was about to become the stepfather of the Son of God! What big shoes he had to fill! Imagine all that poor man went through that year. He was betrothed to a woman who was already with child by God; it was the year of the census and he traveled with Mary, far along in her pregnancy, almost 90 miles to Bethlehem; and when they arrived, things were crowded. Guest houses generally had women and children stay in one big room, and men stay in another big room. Likely Mary did not want Joseph apart from her; after all he chose to stay with her through everything. So they asked around and found a stable, usually a cave under a house or an inn, where animals could stay. There Mary could have her child without being separated from the man who said “yes” to the angel. Joseph was obedient to God, supportive of Mary, and a good citizen of the Davidic line. Joseph was no deadbeat dad.

Mary Ann’s sister Beth loves genealogy and tracing back the branches of their family tree. In many of today’s blended families, sometimes a family tree starts to look like a family shrub: so many branches! What do you think Jesus’ family tree would look like? According to Luke 3: 23-38 Jesus’ lineage went all the way back to Adam by way of Boaz! (Verse 32) who lived in Bethlehem and whose wife—a gentle and devoted Moabite—was Ruth. Even Jesus’ family tree had the mixed marriage of a Jewish man and a Moabite woman! And that was God’s plan. Behold, it was very good.

When it came to Joseph— stepfather by our standards, but Jesus’ father by Jewish standards—he was “of the house and lineage of David.” By first century ruling, Joseph was legally Jesus’ father. It was his job to bring up that son. God left no doubt that that although the Holy Spirit conceived the child, Joseph was to raise him as his own. In essence, it was an adoption arranged in heaven. An angel gave Joseph specific instructions saying: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife …. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” [1: 20-21] Joseph did what the angel commanded, and he got to announce the name of his son! Jesus was to be born in the city of David that is called Bethlehem, a village where a non-traditional marriage of the Jewish man Boaz and the Moabite Ruth produced the branch of Jesse, of David, and of Jesus. Our world is still broken, but as we have seen in Bethlehem over the years, te is still hope. I have visited Bethlehem each time I have led a pilgrimage to Israel. In spite of security checkpoints that must be crossed, the people of Bethlehem are kind and welcoming. Last time we stayed in an inn in Bethlehem, which seemed most appropriate. It was run by a woman, her father, and her children. They were efficient and hard working. We visited the shepherd’s fields and saw sheep on them. We imagined what it must have been like to have an angel visit them.  We visited the cave that for 2000 years is believed to be the place where Jesus was born. And we sang “Silent Night “ at his birth place. Our guide put the video he took of us singing up on Facebook just two months ago to remind us of our visit. It was wonderful.

Let me close with the classic encapsulation of our Lord Jesus:

He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in still another village, where he worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty. There for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book.  He never held an office. He didn’t go to college. He never visited a big city. He never traveled 200 miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things one usually associates with greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only 33 when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While he was dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen centuries have come and gone, and today he is the central figure of the human race and the leader of mankind’s progress.

All the armies that ever marched, all the navies that ever sailed, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected [us] on this earth as much as that One Solitary Life.”

May that one solitary life, impact you today, and forever as your Savior.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  December 18, 2016

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THE FORERUNNER OF CHRIST

Matthew 11:2-11

A lot of money has been made trying to predict when the Second Coming of Christ will be.  Over the years, shelf after shelf in Christian bookstores have dealt with that subject.  People always want to know: when will Christ come? What are the signs? Are the things I read in newspapers and online about fires, or wars, or famines, or earthquakes things that should demand my attention?  Back in 1986 I received an unsolicited mailing at the church.  A man, (apparently with his own money,) sent booklets to many churches. In them he claimed that world events were predicted by the Bible, and he had figured out that Christ was coming again in 1988!  He was convinced of it. Of course it didn’t happen. Now none of us make light of the Biblical belief that Christ will come again. We believe he will. But to know when that will happen by date is not knowledge we believe anybody has. Jesus himself said, in Matthew 24 and Mark 13, ”Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Still, in this season when we hear the words of prophets to “watch” and “prepare,” our Matthew text today pulls a bit of the curtain back regarding hints about when Christ will come again.

John, who we call the Baptist, was baptizing for the repentance of sins. John also called people to be living wood, not dead wood that would be chopped down for not bearing fruit. Well all of John’s preaching and meddling got him into trouble. He was put in prison. Even John had followers and they came to see him.  He said to his followers (not because he didn’t know the answer, but because he believed they needed to hear the answer,) “Ask Jesus: ‘Are you the one who is to come (meaning the Messiah), or shall we look for another?’”  And Jesus answered those followers with these words: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”  That is a giant clue for us! As Jesus was in the midst of his ministry, he wanted them to see for themselves that he was “The Christ.” Christ means “Messiah,” or “anointed one.” Remember the question he asked his disciples in Caesarea Philippi recorded in Matthew 16? “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asked Simon Peter. And Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!” That was the answer Jesus wanted to hear.  So Jesus wanted people to see and believe that he was the Christ; the Messiah. In the history of Jesus’ people–the Jews–they were always looking for the Messiah. The still are, unless they converted to being Christian. There are a couple of litmus tests for Messiah. One of them we’ll talk about today. It involves what Jesus told John’s followers. Jesus said, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them!  Check! Check! Check! Check! Check! Check!  All those things had happened thanks to Jesus! So that meant the Messiah had come and was among them! His name was Jesus! All those things had taken place. And there was a “forerunner” to prepare the way for the Messiah. His name was John. The Messiah was finally with them.

What about us?  That was then, in the first century A.D.  Has Christ come again? We believe that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God is with us even still, but in a spiritual way. It is recorded in John’s gospel that Jesus told his disciple just before his death: “I will not leave you abandoned …. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and help you remember all I have taught you.” In a physical way, Jesus has not returned to the earth.  We believe there will be a second coming of Christ, but it is not yet. How will we know when? We must be careful here not to get tied up with dates, current events, and natural events. Those will not lead us to the answers we seek. We, instead, need to watch for two things.

First we need to watch for a forerunner; someone who seems to speak the truth passionately and who knows Jesus intimately.  John, cousin of Jesus, was such a person. He never claimed to be the light, but to be the witness to the light. Some grand preachers of the airwaves over the years have, at times, seemed to forget that they were not the light. Some drank in the spotlight. But John never forgot. He said, “I’m not even worthy to untie his sandals.” That’s the kind of person who will be a forerunner; a humble person, but one who surely and undeniably calls for people to repent of their sins so they are ready to meet their Lord. If Christ returns and we are not ready, if we have not cast sins to the wind, turned around, and put our spiritual houses in order, we could be very sorry indeed! So first, we need to watch for a forerunner; one who warns, baptizes, and points to the light.

Second, we have to notice if certain things in our world have drastically changed.  Are the blind able to see? Not yet. Not across the board. We can do Lasik surgery, can enlarge print, can provide books in Braille, but many people are still blind. Can all the lame walk? Canes, wheelchairs, and walkers remind us that they can’t. Are those with dreadful diseases cured? Not yet. Can those who are deaf hear? No; we have good hearing aids, and assistive listening devices, but not all deaf people can yet be made to hear. And are the dead raised up? Yes in resurrection, but not in earthly living as Jesus did for a young girl and for a man named Lazarus. Not yet. The poor have good news preached to them, but our limited good news has not lifted them from poverty or allowed their voices to be heard over the powerful and the wealthy. No. We are nowhere near having Jesus in our midst yet in his second coming. He will come. But not yet.

So what shall we do? Until he comes again, the people of the church are the body of Christ. We are the hands, and heart, and eyes, and ears of Christ. We will do all within our power, with prayers and technology, to help the blind to see, the lame to walk, the diseased to be healed, the deaf to hear, the dead to live again, and the poor to hear and experience good news. It will be limited but, just as Jesus empowered his disciples to do his work- including healing- after he was gone, so we too can pray for healing, believing that we have the strong power of Jesus instead of the anemic versions embraced by Christians that sometimes populate our churches. There is power in the blood!  Sometimes when I have prayed for healing, people have been healed. Sometimes with the laying on of hands I have been able to watch people be healed. You and I can make a difference! Christ is not fully with us yet, but I believe with all my heart that he is with us spiritually, and he’s given much power to us if we will claim it. Doing the things I just outlined are some examples of how we can prepare the way for him. To use a nautical term: we can “grease the skids.” Christ commissions us to “grease the skids,” to make the way clearer for him to come again.

This season, with random acts of kindness, or gifts of mercy, or prayerful actions, you cannot bring Christmas faster, but together, we can help make the Kingdoms of our world become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, even faster than before.

Every week we pray: “Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Make it so.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                December 11, 2016

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CHOPPING TREES

Matthew 3: 1-12

Wood is one of nature’s gifts.  In spite of fires like those in East Tennessee last week, trees can grow again out of the ash. Sometimes wood is food for termites, and sometimes wood rots.  Nevertheless, people still choose wood for many reasons. For its beauty and acoustic properties, we chose to have a wood ceiling in our sanctuary. Because of the availability of trees to settlers in the Appalachian region of our country and elsewhere, many a cabin was made out of logs. People who work with wood are sometimes carpenters, lumberjacks, or simply woodcutters. It can be a rough job cutting trees and hauling logs, or it can be a precision job, using small knives to whittle shapes.  From our visit to Bethlehem, Mary Ann and I brought back a substantial manger scene that we display each December: stable, characters, and animals, all carved from olive wood. // I paid extra to have a fireplace in my Florida home, but I was surprised to read on the instructions for its use that it said: “Using real wood logs not recommended.” So we unwrap our fireplace logs from a package! // If you go to the edge of the Sea of Galilee you will find a museum that houses an actual wooden boat from the time of Jesus. Was it one in which Jesus sailed? Who knows? But it was preserved in the muddy bottom of the sea until it’s discovery in 1986. It appeared during a drought when the water had receded. // The story of the Three Trees is a favorite seasonal children’s story with wood having a primary role:  One tree perhaps provided the material from which the Bethlehem manger was made. The next tree perhaps provided the material from which the boat was made that sailed on Sea of Galilee. And the last tree, so the story goes, was used to make the cross on which our Savior died. But that was not the end of the story! He arose from the dead and became Savior of the world!  In wood’s raw form, lumberjacks use axes to chop trees. These days, after the hurricane, we mostly heard chain saws, a much faster way to handle the job. But in more primitive times, axes were used.  On Scout camping trips when I was growing up, each Scout had his own hatchet and a pocketknife, and each troop had an ax to cut wood for our campfires.

Still, John had a different picture of wood as he shouted to the curious onlookers who gathered to hear him near the Jordan River.  His words were a warning: “Even now, the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” [Matthew 3:10] Hmm. Let’s explore that claim. There are usually one of four reasons for chopping trees: 1) To make a way clear. If a house is going to go up on a piece of land, or a road is going through a parcel, trees may have to be cut to make the way clear. John even saw himself as one who cleared the way for the Messiah to come. 2) To make a fire. Green or fresh wood is allowed to dry and age, making it burn well so it can be used for warmth or cooking. John knew that power, and the fear, of fire. 3) To make Christmas. Our church every year chooses to buy a real tree to put in our sanctuary and decorate. Trees like this one are grown for that purpose, and they bring joy from their looks and fragrance! You can’t get that fragrance in a can! And 4) Trees can be chopped as a warning, saying that some things in the human race need to change. As John put it metaphorically, if we believe we are following the ways of God, but we cannot produce any evidence of that claim, parts of our souls might be dead. Dead trees can no longer produce fruit. And they can be blown down in a storm because they become brittle. So they get chopped down instead.  The Apostle Paul took John’s metaphor and ran with it! A tree that does not produce fruit, or leaves, or whatever a healthy tree produces, is cut down at its root. John warned of that.  And after what is dead becomes dry, it is chopped up and thrown into a fire, because dead wood burns well. Live wood. Does not.

Glinda, the good witch in the Wizard of Oz asks Dorothy: “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?”  If John the Baptist were here today, he might look us in the eyes and ask, “Are you live wood, or are you dead wood?”  Using John’s metaphor, congregations that have members who stop participating, giving, or worshipping are sometimes referred to as “dead wood.” You might wonder how someone can tell if you are dead wood or not: one way is by checking your calendar: what things do you do for others, and what things do you do to honor God? A second way is looking at your checkbook or online account: where does your money go, and who does it help outside of your necessary expenses? Finally, Paul’s letter to the Galatians says “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”   Do you have those qualities? If your wife, or your husband, or your child, or your parent, or your friend is giving you “the look” right now, the look that says “That is you!” perhaps a rugged self-examination is in order!  Do qualities fit you bet that are opposite of the fruit of the Spirit?  Some of those people are sexually inappropriate, or curse constantly, or put other things or people before God, or are constantly hostile or antagonistic, or get drunk, cause strife, create conflicts, or show regular jealousy, or they argue all the time. Those aren’t the qualities for the Kingdom of God.

In the beginning of my Christian journey, on youth retreats we sang,“It only takes a spark to get a fire going.” Has the spark of your first connection with Christ gone dim or gone out? Do you feel jaded about churches in general? Are most of your comments sarcastic? Are you just in worship out of a sense of duty? Have your gifts to your Lord slowed down or dried up? Do you feel somehow bitter about life? These are qualities of dead wood people. Through words or actions, you have been burned or broken; perhaps you’ve become angry as well? Today, will you consider letting John the Baptist shake the dust off your soul and your wounded feelings, so this Christmas can be a time of new beginnings?  If you allow your will to surrender to God’s will instead, you can have a new and abundant life, not a broken and bitter one. Today as you prepare to take this Christmas communion, you can press your reset button, and decide to live differently.

On the other hand, if you are live wood, the Spirit of the Living God lifts and restores you again and again. Like endorphins coursing through your body, the Spirit lifts you up. God’s Holy Spirit gives you the energy, and the drive, to minister to broken people whose hearts have been crushed and whose hopes have been dashed.  The Kingdom of God is made up of both dead wood and live wood. Join me in staying connected with, or reconnecting with God. Then the Gardener of the Kingdom can nurture us, and, if necessary, bring us back to life. God has done it before; God can do it again.

Let us pray:

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us; melt us, mold us, fill us, use us. Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on us. Through Jesus Christ we pray.

Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           December 4, 2016