Monthly Archives: May 2017

05-28-17 HEARING JESUS’ PRAYER

HEARING JESUS’ PRAYER

John 17: 1-11

 

A pastor from San Antonio Texas wrote about the time he came to his office only to be greeted by a handful of phone messages he needed to return. He began at the top of the stack and started working his way through them. After returning several of the calls, he came to one that just had a telephone number on it. He dialed the number, and the voice at the other end of the line answered: “Holy Ghost.” Immediately he thought “This is just what I’ve always wanted: a hotline to the Holy Ghost!” Then her realized he had reached the Holy Ghost Fathers, a Roman Catholic order in San Antonio.

 

There are plenty of times I’d like a hotline to God, to get instant answers! Sure I have a direct line; I can go to God in prayer but the answers come more slowly. I remember a time when a TV preacher told the viewers across the airwaves that God told him personally that he would call him home if his supporters did not send donations totaling 8 million dollars! That was Oral Roberts in 1987. A Time magazine article asked the question “Was Roberts extorting his viewers and using [God] as his accomplice?” You may not believe what happened unless you remember it. Oral Roberts’ received 9 million dollars!! Whew! The Lord did not call him home. But by 2007 the school announced that they were an astonishing 52.5 million dollars in debt.

 

I don’t know anyone who has a “hotline” to God. We have a God who listens in to our prayers. Some wish that prayer, like a vending machine, could put a way to their money in the plate and get to ask God anything, such as: “What is Heaven like?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Instead God has determined that we can best  find his will by searching for it and praying for it like Jesus did when he prayed: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, just as it is in Heaven.”

 

So how do we connect with God when we don’t have a hotline of some kind? Christian singer and songwriter Cynthia Clausen has an idea:

A rocky road, a heavy load, got you wonderin’ if you’ll ever get over.

Your journey’s slow, your faith is low, and you’re wonderin’

who will take the time to get you back on your feet, turn your bitter to sweet. Jesus knows all the burdens that you bear. He will take the tim to care.

Anybody got a heart that will not mend?

Are you trying to live a life you just can’t defend?

Are you in a battle you just can’t win?

Anybody got a problem they can’t solve?

Anybody got a hole in their resolve?

Remember in His hands the world revolves.

Bring it to Jesus.

 

So again this week we look at Jesus through the heart of John, the writer of our gospel today. He is loving, caring, and compassionate. And today we find out something astounding: Jesus prays for his disciples. We find his prayer in John 17.  There is something very sacred—something holy—about not just hearing Jesus teach about prayer, but hearing our Savior pray. Listen to this: Jesus says to his Father “You have given [me] authority over people to give eternal life to all you have given to me.”  So this, I believe, is not only a prayer for the Twelve, but a prayer for all the faithful. Listen to what Jesus prays, on behalf of his followers. First, he prays, “Holy Father, protect them (in the name you have given me) so that they may be one, as we are one.” [Verse 11] Oneness is a theme repeated several times in John’s Gospel. Jesus tries to get across that he and the Father are one, and that he wants his followers to be “one” too. In other words, when one rejoices, all rejoice! When one hurts, all hurt. When one dies, all grieve and support one another. It also means that, together, we seek to have the mind of Christ, asking in our daily lives, “What would Jesus do?”

 

Second, Jesus prays that his Father, “Protect them from evil” or “from the evil one.” That seems to be important to Jesus: he knows how powerful temptation can be, and knows how far people can fall if they listen to a voice other than his. In other words, he is praying that Satan does not dominate our thinking, call our focus away from God, or win our allegiance from God. I know of people who are so afraid of being tricked by Satan or being approached by Satan that all they do is think about Satan and how to avoid him. But if all their energy is poured into avoidance, how is there any energy let for praise, and love, and adoration? Don’t spend your life looking over your shoulder for Satan. Instead, look inward, or outward, or upward seeking the face of your Lord! God can get no glory when your time is eaten up with fear or panic. Jesus has already prayed that you be kept safe from the evil one. Give thanks for Jesus’ prayer, affirm it in your heart, and then spend your life glorifying God, not falling into Satanic traps. Jesus tells us why: “So that we might have his joy in all its fullness.”  Not running in terror, but living with joy.  Yes in our world that features terrorists, we need to be wary; but not obsessed. That is Jesus’ prayer for his followers; to be kept safe from evil. We know that because we got to read it thanks to John.

 

An outstanding young law student who was interviewing for a summer clerking position with a law firm had just completed the last of several interviews. He decided to accept one position in particular even though he had several attractive offers from other large and prestigious firms. When asked why he picked the one he did, this was his answer: “This was the only firm where the partners talked to me about how much they enjoyed the practice of law and their firm. Most of the others just focused on their benefits and their retirement packages.” Could people make choices about joining a church the same way? Could they join our church because they feel the Spirit moving here and sense our enthusiasm? Wouldn’t that be a better criterion than: “This looks like a good place to have a funeral?” Do people join churches just for the benefits (salvation) and the generous retirement policy (eternal life?)

 

Finally, Jesus asks his Father to “Sanctify them in the truth.” A strange phrase, right? The original Greek word means, “to set us apart for a task; to consecrate or make holy.”  We are set apart to be change agents of the world, not to let the world change us. We live IN the world but not OF the world. We are the ones whose prayer lives should not only be about asking for needs to be met, but asking God what we can do to help make this world into the Kingdom of God.  We are given a task, equipped to do it, and asked to carry it out.  There is a plan for your life and my life if you hear it and seek it! Seek it in prayer. And remember, even as you are praying, Jesus is praying with you and for you. You are not alone. Thanks be to God.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 28, 2017

05-21-17 THE ROLES OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

THE ROLES OF THE HOLY SPIRIT

John 14: 15-27

 

We are in the season of transitions, and sometimes of saying goodbye. Some have children graduating from high school or college. Some older adults have to move to a new location to be near a grown child who can care for him or her. Some, like Andrea and Steven yesterday whose wedding was here yesterday, are transitioning to married life. Sometimes there are tearful goodbyes. In the First and Second World Wars, wives said goodbye to their husbands as parents said goodbye to their son, hoping that he would return. Later in the Gulf War and today with both men and women deciding to enlist, or do more than one tour of duty, or to go through an Officer Candidate’s School, we still say our goodbyes, and we pray. In hospital rooms people say goodbye as their loved one goes back for surgery. Goodbyes are part of life. And Jesus in John’s gospel brings a plethora of helps for his disciples, and also for us as we read his words.

 

Today’s text from John is a concentrated portion from about 9 chapters of Jesus giving final instructions to his friends. And today’s text holds the key verse of Jesus’ reassuring words: “I will not leave you orphaned.” The original Greek: “Orphanos.” I will not leave you as orphans. As I told the boys and girls today, for those in our world who do not have a mother or father to care for them, we are glad to support the Thornwell Home for Children in Clinton, South Carolina. They used to be called an orphanage but that term has fallen out of use. What they do is make a home for children that has a house parent who love them. That way they are no longer feeling abandoned. And Jesus was also saying the same thing. No gospel makes a better case for Jesus’ care and comfort for his followers, and part of that gift is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s roles are: 1) to fill the void with Jesus’ eminent departure. 2) To counsel and be a counselor; and 3) To teach what they and we will want to know.  John, the author, highlights the extraordinary declaration we heard last week: In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God …. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Then, three chapters letter: John records Jesus saying:  “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Late John recorded the story of the raising of Lazarus, and of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, and early on, the wedding at Cana. What a gift John’s vantage point and witness have been to the church! And as we hear last week, Jesus loved his disciples and when he was leaving, he said in John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms” as we heard last week. This man filled a void in the lives of the Twelve and others. And Jesus can do that for you too.  Jesus, in John’s gospel, takes not one, but nine chapters to tell his disciples goodbye. For nine chapters: 1) He tells them that after awhile he will leave them, but that he will return; 2)He tells them where he’s going; and 3) He says they can’t go with him now; and 4) he tells them he’s leaving them the Holy Spirit so they will not feel abandoned.  The Spirit has an important role when Jesus departs.

 

One commentator rightly suggests that we picture the disciples almost as children. Picture, for example, children or grandchildren sitting on the floor of your house. When they notice you picking up your car keys, getting a purse or briefcase, and reaching for the door, they might ask questions like the disciples did:

 

  1. “Where are you going?”

Jesus answered that question “I’m going to my Father.” (John 14: 12)

  1. “Can we come too?”

Jesus’ reply: “Where I’m going you can’t go now; but you can come later.”

(John 13:36)

  1. Here’s the key question: “Then who’s going to stay with us?”

Jesus’ reply: “The Father will send you another Counselor who will be with you forever. You will not be left as orphans.” (John 14: 16-18)

 

This chapter of John is one of the most beautiful accounts of God’s care for his people. No wonder that in times of our final goodbyes to loved ones, John 14 brings such comfort. Jesus begins to prepare his disciples in chapter 12. From that time until chapter 21, he is preparing his disciples to carry on without him. “Feed my sheep” was among the last of his instructions.

 

Could this model be a good one for our goodbyes too? Before you are caught off guard by your death, have you made yourself indispensible? Jesus didn’t. He taught others how to carry on without him. Have you avoided the subject of your own death? Jesus didn’t.  Nine chapters out of twenty-one dealt with what to do when he was gone. Do you have a will, and is it up to date? We’ll have a speaker from our planned gifts committee address that next week. Have you told your spouse who to go to for car repairs, or how to handle your finances? Have you told your spouse how to do things around the house, including the kitchen and the laundry room?  It’s time to break our silences, because our silences leave a spouse or child with a greater burden when we are gone. Jesus prepared those around him for his death. If we seek to ask “What Would Jesus Do?” in every other area of life, death should be included too. Consider how he has left the Holy Spirit to comfort, to counsel, and to teach us.  Do what he would do.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 21, 2017

 

 

Dear Lord of Life: how often we avoid talking about our deaths. It is more reassuring to say “see you later” than “goodbye.” But dear Jesus: teach us the value of preparing for our death with as much care as we prepare for a new life entering our world. Grant us wisdom and courage for the living of our days. And remind us that you never, no never will forsake us and leave us as orphans. Through the power and gift of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

 

05-14-17 JESUS PREPARES A PLACE FOR YOU

JESUS PREPARES A PLACE FOR YOU

John 14: 1-11

 

All through the month of May we are blessed to hear words of Jesus as recounted by his disciple John. John loved Jesus almost like a child would love his mother or his father; perhaps even a little more than that. John referred to himself as “The disciple who Jesus loved,” and I am certain he did so out of a feeling of unworthiness and gratitude. So when he reports about Jesus, he does it through a lens of adoration and appreciation. We recounted last week that Jesus was “The Good Shepherd.” And Jesus explained what that meant. Jesus said he was also “The gate” for the sheep, and that any predator or bandit would get to the sheep only over his dead body. Jesus, in John’s gospel, talks to the disciples as if they are frightened of being abandoned. We’ll address their specific fears of abandonment next week. But today we need this context to understand the tone of Jesus’ words. Sometimes people use fearful terminology to described Jesus’ second coming to earth. Some warn that “we must be ready, or we’ll be left behind.” Others say we have to read the signs of the times to see when Jesus will come again, to be “ready” for him. Generally those fearful images are taken from the prophet Joel, from 1 Thessalonians, from one of the other gospels, and sometimes from Revelation.  But Jesus in John’s gospel would never put fear in the hearts of the sheep; remember: last week we read in John 10 that Jesus is not just the good shepherd to his sheep but to the sheep: to all the sheep. So Jesus is for the world. And Jesus in John’s gospel tries to be as comforting as a good mother is with her infant, or a good father or good teacher is with their instruction. Jesus tries to be a calming influence, not a fearful one. Let’s turn to these famous words.

 

“Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in me.”

We get to listen in to this gentle lesson. It’s the kind of message someone about to die wants to say to children or other loved ones. Do you believe in God? If you do, then you can easily listen in to Jesus’ comforting words. If you don’t, you aren’t condemned harshly; you just may not be ready to buy into the promises to follow. But for those grown men—those disciples—who were not ready to move from their “follower” designation to leader, Jesus understood. Have you ever run a committee, or an Association, or a Club and you became ready to step down?  You asked which of your wonderful workers would step up and assume the leadership role? And the room grows silent?  Not everyone is made to lead.  On the other hand, many who decided to step into a leadership position grew into it and became a good leader. Jesus was about to drop his disciples in the deep end of the pool; he was trying to prepare them. He would not be there to lead them or save them much longer. If you have ever seen geese overhead, for example, they fly in a V shaped pattern as they make their way during migration times. Scientists have studied them and believe the geese honk their encouragement to the leader in front. That one has the hardest job to do: choosing the direction to go and facing all the headwinds. But once the one in front begins to tire, that goose is allowed to fall back and another takes the lead. It is a wonderful way to not wear down or burn out a leader. So Jesus is easing his followers into leadership. Like children who have had both parents die, they have to figure out paperwork, and make decisions, and put their untested skills to use. Jesus knew that the Twelve had been followers; soon they would go into the world as leaders, because their leader would be gone. He was comforting them and preparing them.

 

Next, Jesus says “In my Father’s house are many” —what? Mansions? Rooms? Dwelling places? That’s the question. The King James translators wrote “Mansions” which led to a lot of hopes for getting a “Mansion in the sky.” Is it gated? Is it lovely? Is it exclusive? The truth is more realistic. This story is based on the marriage arrangement for Jews that Jesus had been exposed to all his life. When it was time for a Jewish father to choose a bride for his son, he looked over the brides in the area and chose one for his son. He then went to the bride’s father to see if he would agree to the arrangement. The bride’s father might have agreed, but he would ask a considerable price for his daughter’s hand in marriage. If an arrangement was reached, the father of the bride would tell his daughter that her marriage had been arranged; then the father of the groom would depart with his son to return to the father’s house to build a room on the father’s house. It would be where the new couple would live: a place prepared for them. The father then would begin to make sure than his son not only learned the construction trade, but he also worked to prepare his son to be a husband and later a father. No one knew when the father decided his son was ready; not the son, not the father of the bride, not the bride. The bride and her bridesmaids just had to be ready. There would be no signs along the way. Only the father knew and sent a messenger just before his son returned. Then and only then would he return to get his bride-to-be (who had to be ready) and take her to the place he had prepared for her. It was a room on the father’s house.  So the best word in verse 2 is “room,” not “mansion” or “dwelling place.” This is the tone of this passage: it is comforting and using the familiar situation (familiar to then at least) of Jesus, sometimes called “the groom,” returning to get his bride, who are the members of his Church-his followers. Jesus says to his disciples and to us, in so many words, “I love you that much.” Bible teacher Ray Vanderlaan says Jesus asks you, and asks me, “Will you be my spiritual bride?” How lovely. It’s not weird; it’s gentle, and it soothing. It is not threatening or harsh.

Third, Jesus even lets an objection rise when he says to them “You know the way.” Thomas was troubled and Jesus lets him ask a question, even as he lets him doubt later that Jesus had risen from the dead. “Lord, we do not know where you’re going; how can we?”  Jesus, perhaps with a sigh because he thought these men had understood him, still said “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” I sometimes cringe at the way that’s interpreted. It is used as an exclusive warning to those who don’t believe in Jesus as Savior; a way that excludes others. But remember; this is the Gospel of John. This is the Gospel that says in chapter one “In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In John’s Gospel, Jesus was even in the beginning; with God, and equal to God. That means that for anyone who has died, according to John’s Jesus, he did not just get born by Mary; he existed since the beginning of time. Could it be that, from the beginning of time, no one came to the Father but by Him because he was equal to and with the Creator?  If so, it is meant to comfort; not to scare, or to exclude. He is saying, ‘Hey, I was there when you were created; I will see you again as you depart.” It is very, very comforting. The hymn “I was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” can be attributed to Jesus. The first line proclaims to the recently baptized person: “I was there to hear your borning cry, I’ll be there when you are old. I rejoiced the day you were baptized to see your life unfold.”  John’s Jesus even gives some evidence toward that stance of Jesus and the Father being one in knowledge and presence.  Phillip, like a child, says “Lord, show us the Father and we will be satisfied.” Our ever patient Jesus (except with moneychangers in the Temple) said “I am in the Father and the Father in me; anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” They were together in the beginning; they will be together in the end. And in between, like a loving mother, or a caring father, or a loving groom, we are reassured that there will be a room prepared for us too. It’s attached to the Father’s house for connection, but it’s separated enough to be your place. A place for you. How many children who shared a room with a brother or sister were excited when they finally got their own room? Or maybe that day hasn’t happened yet for you!  Or perhaps sharing conversations and space are fine with you! Whatever works for you here will be prepared for you there. That’s the kind of Jesus we find in John.

 

When Jesus comes to get us: whether it is at our death or at his second coming, we have a loving groom coming to welcome his bride- that is, members of his church or the sheep from the flock.  Though the good shepherd is the shepherd to all sheep, he is messiah to those who call him Lord. And there is a place prepared for you; and for me. Invite others to know him, not with the threat that they’ll be left behind, because they will feel so cared for and welcome. Like Isaiah once quote God, Jesus certainly knew these words: “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to them and call out to them.” It seems like Jesus is using the best pastoral care and loving care he knows how to offer. Receive it in that way. Whether you are rattled or confused; whether you are sick or well; whether you are a disciple or a seeker or a bystander, consider the man who stilled the waters; he can also still your heart on issues like this.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           May 14, 2017

 

05-07-17 JESUS THE GOOD SHEPHERD

JESUS THE GOOD SHEPHERD

John 10: 1-11

 

When babies enter this world they generally need at least two things in addition to proper food: one is to be feel secure. A baby is born; he or she may be placed in the mother’s arms, but then they are always wrapped in some kind of receiving blanket. They left the security and warmth of the mother’s womb and came into a world that is drastically different. Birth has some traumatic aspects to it, but one thing a child will want is security. Have you noticed how a nurse wraps the baby up in the receiving blanket? The baby is wrapped quite securely to give him or her the warmth and security they need. We need comfort, security, protection, and touch. Perhaps you remember studying the work of American psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1930s. He obtained rhesus monkeys, exposing some of them to touch and being held; others he fed and kept clean by mechanical means.  Not only did the baby monkeys that were held and touched thrive, the ones not touched actually failed to thrive and develop properly, even though they were fed.  In addition, the monkeys clearly imprinted on their mother, recognizing her face apart from every other face. The monkeys fed mechanically had no such opportunity. It is clear that security, and the face of parents, and the voice of parents, soothes and comforts the baby who gets to know the ones who offer that care and protection. The second thing babies need is protection; to feel safe. Security and protection go hand in hand throughout life. It is not just Linus in the “Peanuts” cartoons who carries around a blanket; many children, who are also well loved and protected, latch onto a security object.  It is natural. Through life many children, youth, and adults like to be held by someone special. Even at the end of life, human contact is so important even as it gets to be more difficult.

Today in John chapter 10, Jesus is offering grown men, and the crowd that is with them, images that hearken back to their deepest human needs. Years earlier in the book of Exodus, God was asking Moses to carry out the very important task of letting his people go. Moses replied: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your forbearers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses “I AM WHO I AM” which in Hebrew are the letters YHWH.  Fast forward to John’s gospel; John includes many things Jesus said that are called the “I am” sayings. It is a reminder that God-I AM-is a part of him; but also they are descriptive sayings Jesus says about himself. Let’s look at the passage.

 

In John chapter 10 we read: “Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate, but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit.” Jesus has an audience that knows something about what a shepherd did; we need a little explanation. At night a shepherd will generally corral his sheep in or around the entrance of a cave that he has thoroughly checked for animal predators or human bandits. Only when the sheep sense that their shepherd is sure that all is well will they lie down to rest. Sheep are skittish and nervous without a calm and protecting shepherd. The protected place he chooses he calls the “sheepfold.” It is too hard to protect 360 degrees by himself at night, so he places himself at the most vulnerable area, and never fully sleeps. He is alert and watching and listening. There is not actually a gate; he is the gate; it will be only over his dead body that somebody will harm his sheep. He will give his life for his sheep. Now do you see the beginnings of the analogy between a good shepherd and Jesus? Verse two: “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” That is, no one else is permitted to come close to them; sheep only respond calmly to the face they know and the voice they recognize. Anyone, or anything else, startles them. And startled sheep don’t eat, they can lose weight, and their fur coat can get thin. The shepherd’s job is so important! If there is a gatekeeper in a ranch-like setting, he knows that shepherd and lets him in to see his sheep. “The sheep then hear his voice, he calls them by name, and he leads them out.” (verse 3) “When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.” Do you hear those important words: “he goes ahead of them;” does it remind you of Jesus going “ahead” of us to Heaven? And the sheep “follow” him.  Jesus asked disciples to “follow him” as well. “Sheep will not follow a stranger.” With human freewill, how many people have gotten into trouble following a stranger? But with sheep, the shepherd says in so many words: “I’ve got you. Settle down. It’s just me.”

 

So Jesus is the gate. But he goes further: “I am the good shepherd,” he says. “What does that get us? We have learned: it gets us security and protection. But now we learn one other thing: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (verse 11) This is seen particular with new mothers in the animal kingdom. I just heard again this week of a mother hawk swooping down and drawing blood from the heads of passersby because her newborns are in the nest. She is protecting them. We know mama bears can be the fiercest of all animals when she is protecting her cubs. And you’ve heard of human parents willing to give their life for the sake of their child. It’s quite a gift, and our good shepherd provides it for not just “his sheep;” according to verse 7 and 11. He is for the sheep, not just his sheep. The same is true of Jesus’ death; it was a means of taking away the sin of the world; not just the sins of his flock. John himself recorded it in chapter 1 verse 29: John the Baptist pointed to Jesus and told his disciples: “Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Jesus is for the world even if we’d just like him to just be for his sheep. He is bigger than that; he is more expansive than that. He is more loving than that. “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” And so he is. Thanks be to God that we have been given such a good shepherd. Otherwise, all we, like sheep, will easily go astray.

 

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, also is the author of a book called The Lord is My Shepherd. In it he says: “To say ‘the Lord is my shepherd’ is to say that we live in an unpredictable, often terrifying world, ever mindful of all the bad things that might happen to us and to those around us. The philosopher William James writes of ‘the pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.’ But despite it all, we can get up every morning to face that world because we know that there is Someone in that world who cares about us and tries to keep us safe….The primary message of the twenty-third Psalm is not that bad things will never happen to us….but we will be able to face the world with more courage and more confidence because we will not be facing it alone.” (Alfred A. Knoff, 2003, p.15)

 

In Psalm 23 David said to God: “Thou preparest a table before me.” Today this table has been prepared for you. Prepare to eat; prepare to give thanks for Jesus; and realize how good it is to be in the flock of the good shepherd.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          May 7, 2017