Monthly Archives: December 2017

12-31-17 PURIFY

PURIFY

Malachi 3: 1-4; Luke 2: 22-40

 

On a New Year’s Eve like this, many of us take into account the year that is about to conclude.  Some may say “Good riddance!” to 2017 as they place their hopes in 2018.  New Years’ Resolutions came about when people wanted to shake old habits and start new ones.  To do that, there needs to be a break; a clean break. Our souls, like clothes, get dirty. “Jesus’ arrival on Earth is described as being ‘like a refiner’s fire, and like fuller’s soap. Jesus, like the soap used by the launderer’s of antiquity to clean and whiten clothes, was coming to purify people and cleanse them of sin.’”  We once had church members who owned a cleaning shop. I remember how my heart sank as a needlepoint cloth Mary Ann had made got ink spilled on it. I called Linda Abbott, the cleaner. “Don’t try to take it out yourself. Bring it to me,” she said. Four days later I went to pick it up. Gone! The ink stain was gone! How amazing are fullers and dry cleaners!  That’s the way we want our soul to enter a New Year: clean!  These days we use various enzyme detergents, bleach, and other chemicals to make things clean, or to make dull white garments white again. They start fresh! As I showed the boys and girls, we often use antibacterial soap to wash germs from our hands. If you have been on a cruise lately, you’ll notice that every time you enter a dining room, an attendant or a machine squirts disinfectant on your hands.  Cruise personnel and passengers hate the Norovirus! The jug of water I showed the children said it was “purified.” Purifying takes something not clean and makes it clean.  The prophets of old used a more frightening image, ones that revivalist preacher sometimes drew out and used: fire! Exceedingly hot fire would be used to separate the pure gold from the debris to be discarded.  The old term for that material was “dross.” Listen to one verse of the hymn “How Firm a Foundation.”  “When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace all sufficient shall be thy supply. The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.” We want our dross to drop away and our gold to be purified! This is the day for our spiritual fire; the day when we want God’s powerful word to convict us, and then to convince us to leave behind the destructive habits and begin to take up new ones. The spiritual flames might drive you to apologize for wrongs you have done to others, to show true remorse, then to make amends. The flames might let you leave regrets behind and work to mend some fences. The flames might encourage you to build a bridge to others where an earlier bridge had been burned down.  What might God want you to do, so that you are not carrying sin, and filth, and decay, and infection into the next year?

 

In our world there are sadly many 2017 stories that point to corruption. Politics is such an area. But then there were also stories of powerful men taking advantage of women. There were stories of children, youth, and adults bullying others, which are coercive tactics.  Even church institutions have not been spared corruption stories.  Carrying such tactics into a new year does not give us the chance to come clean with others or with God. Coming clean—sometimes called confession—is good for relationships and good for your soul! If you can believe it, the prophets of old were crying out to those who could hear them about corruption in the priesthood! Of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, named after the twelve sons of Jacob, one son—Levi—was given charge of the priesthood.  Through the line, priests would teach priests and carry on the tradition. But Malachi saw problems and addressed them head on. R. Lansing Hicks, who was a Professor at the Yale Divinity School, once wrote this about Malachi:

“One central theme dominates Malachi’s thought: fidelity to the Lord’s covenant and its teachings. From this standpoint he both condemns the priests for corrupting worship and misleading the people.” Malachi said this of the priests in chapter 3, verse 3: “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.”  Fidelity to God and to one another is vital according to Scripture. That could be a cornerstone of our new beginning in 2018!

 

For Jews, like Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus, purity was practiced all the time. Foods, now called Kosher, had to prepared a certain way, and others foods were to be avoided. As faithful Jews made their way to Jerusalem for special days, they were instructed to first take part in purification rituals. There were special pools of water, almost like a baptistery, but they were called mikvahs. Remember what Luke said in chapter 2, verse 22: “And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.”  Such purification would occur before holy days, such as Yom Kippur, known as the “Day of Atonement” when once a year people would come to the Temple to pay for the sins they had committed during the past year. Can you imagine? Saving up your sins for a year? Purification and the atonement ritual allowed for a fresh start in the new year. This is such a time for us as we move from 2017 to 2018! What ritual can we go through today? If you have been baptized already, the Holy Spirit dwells in you, and if you have invited Jesus into your heart, he is with you too! But here is something each of us individually can do today! We have a way to make a fresh start, to purify our souls.

 

If you repent of sins that still are lingering in your life—ones that had a direct impact on your 2017, then this is the time to acknowledge those and to have a new beginning. The ritual, practiced by Jews and Christian, includes these steps:

  • Realization of your wrongs
  • Remorse for those wrong
  • Repentance from those wrongs
  • Restitution for those wrongs as appropriate
  • Reconciliation with those you have wronged.

 

Today I invite you to practice those steps:

realization, remorse, repentance, restitution,

and reconciliation. It can restore your relationship

with God and with others.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                 January 31, 2017

 

12-24-17 CELEBRATE!

CELEBRATE!

LUKE 2: 1-14

 

In his book Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Lawrence H. Stookey poignantly captures the idea of what we hear in this season: “Emmanuel: God with us.” He writes:

Imagine a scene in heaven before Bethlehem. God has convened a solemn council of all the heavenly host and now addresses them: “Despite our best efforts to be made known through creation, hard-headed humanity has not gotten the point. The do not understand divine love at work among them and rebel against it at every opportunity, often in the most vicious of ways.  Since they do not see the grace we continuously pour on them, we must make our activity more clear to them.  If they are to be saved from themselves, it will be necessary for someone to go there from here, to take on human form, to reveal in person what we intend for creation to be. Who will go for us?” There is a great silence in heaven. The angels stand on one foot and then the other, declining eye contact with one another. Each feels a sense of obligation but an utter unwillingness to take on the onerous task of dealing with humanity. Then the voice of God [speaks] again: “Who will go for us? Who is willing to try to make more clear the message of heavenly grace to people caught in their own selfishness? Which of you will take on flesh and be born in their midst?’ Another great embarrassed silence follows. Once again, “Who will go?” No one stirs. No sound can be heard. So God says, “Then I myself will go.”  [Abingdon Press, 1996]

 

When it came to the joy or celebration of the amazing birth of Christ, perhaps heaven wasn’t the place that occurred, at least initially. When it came to Mary, didn’t she have to feel humbled and perhaps frightened as she heard from an angel [which can be a frightful experiences since angels often say “fear not?”] And Mary would have been exceedingly uncomfortable as she grew great with child. No real celebration there. Plus she was going to have a child out of wedlock–that was no cause for celebration. How about Joseph? No celebration there either. He had to swallow a story that must have seemed like a tall tail.  To his credit, he went along with the incredible request the angel had for him. But there was no celebration on his part. Was there a celebration in Nazareth where Mary and Joseph lived? Hardly. Murmuring might have been more like it. Was there celebration in Bethlehem? No red carpet there. No one even saved room for native son Joseph. What about in Jerusalem? No way. Herod the Great [Self-named] was so paranoid that he killed some of his sons and wives. He wanted no other king, not even a boy king! And later when Jesus was born, Herod was the one who sought to end Jesus’ life. Hmmm. There was no celebration in heaven, until maybe that night. There was no celebration in hell either because, according to the English carol,  “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” he was born “to free all those who trust in him from Satan’s power and might.” No celebration there. Who celebrated this wondrous event?

 

First, if the prophets were still alive, like Isaiah, or Malachi, or Micah, they would have celebrated! It took centuries for one to be born who would be called Messiah. John the Baptist was alive and he celebrated, not with a party but with urgency.  It had taken so long for a Messiah to arrive! Did you see the animated film “Zootopia?” One of my favorite scenes depicted a sloth as the clerk at the counter of the Department of Motor Vehicles! How brilliant to have a place notorious for waiting being staffed by a sloth, that spoke and moved with agonizing slowness!  That was just an afternoon. Imagine the wait of dozens of lifetimes for a messiah to arrive! The prophets would have been exceedingly glad.

 

Second, in Matthew’s gospel we find that the Magi, also called wise men, were exceedingly glad.  Several years ago we showed a powerful film on Bethlehem’s star, and just last week I heard more convincing evidence of the star that was over Bethlehem. According to Gatehouse News Service, “A researcher for the International Star Bible Society believes he has identified the famous Star of Bethlehem that led the Three Wise Men to the newborn Jesus Christ more than 2000 years ago. [ISBS astronomer Ron Allen says the] location for the Star of Bethlehem is a black hole known as X-1 Cygnus in the Cygnus constellation. Allen said the black hole is the remains of a large nova and can be identified as the Star of Bethlehem.”  The Wise Men thought the birth was significant and special so they traveled far and they even brought gifts fit for a king! Oh yes, those men had excitement and joy as they followed the star.

 

Third, there was excitement with the shepherds in Luke’s gospel. First a single angel speaks to them. And, as always, the angel invites the shepherds to “fear not,” to “be not afraid.” Such an appearance in the dark of night could be terrifying for shepherds guarding sheep against predators. But perhaps even more terrifying, after that a “multitude of the heavenly host” appears! Do you know what that is? It’s an army of angels!  This was a big announcement! As shepherds watched the angels go back into heaven, did they just fall back asleep? No! They decided this called for an investigation, and later perhaps, a celebration. So “they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger. In a case where commas matter, my Princeton speech professor always said, “make certain that you always observe to comma after Joseph’s name. Otherwise you’ll get ‘Mary, Joseph and the babe lying in a manger,’ and that would be one crowded baby bed! “So yes, there was excitement with the shepherds!

 

Finally, as the church was taking root in the middle of the first century, there was cautious celebration of the birth of Christ. But with persecutions of Christians, celebrations were not clearly evident. Celebrations grew in 339 A.D. when Emperor Constantine, encouraged by his mother Helena, built a church over the place in Bethlehem where all Christian traditions said Jesus was born.  Since that time, the birth of Christ has caused Christians to celebrate not only with candlelight services and midnight masses, but with timeless carols and the retelling of the old, old story! In the spirit of the magi, there are gifts given too.  From 1985 until 1999 my family hosted a Christmas Day service at the church with a volunteer piano player. My wife and three children ushered and greeted, while she and I sang a duet and read Christmas stories. We also  made cookies and hosted fellowship hour ourselves! We did that to celebrate the birth of Jesus! And as an offering, we put a slip on paper in each bulletin. At the top it said “My Gift to the Christ Child.”  In the spirit of the Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” we invited people to write down the gift they would give the Christ Child if they could. They then would walk forward and place it under the Chrismon tree. That service had a special and a simply joy about it.

 

Today, and tonight, and tomorrow, we get to celebrate a birth that was hard on Mary, hard on Joseph, and was hard on God. But through them we have Christ, and through Christ we have Christmas!  May you celebrate this day of days, tomorrow, during the 12 Days of Christmas, and beyond!

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 24, 2017

12-17-17 WITNESS

WITNESS

John 1: 6-8; 19-28

 

In the book Small Miracles that is in our church library, authors Yitta Halbertsam and Judith Leventhal write this:

There are moments in life when each of us catch our breath and glimpse God’s presence. Sometimes it is when we see the radiant face of a sleeping child, sometimes it is when we hear a fragment of a melody that stirs awake an unfamiliar yearning…. These epiphanic experiences, common to us all, can help lead us to our unfulfilled destiny. … When consciousness is cultivated and perception heightened, these experiences can serve as vital tokens of growth and transformation. To encounter these moments in their fullness and their richness, to be aware of their message and hear their music, is to truly know God. And predominant among these experiences is the phenomenon we call coincidences…. [Writer Doris Lessing once put it like this: “Coincidences are God’s way of remaining anonymous.”]

 

Today I firmly believe that many of us here today have had a time, or several times, when we were made aware of the presence of God.  Lyricist Lanny Wolfe said it like this: “Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, I can feel his mighty power, and his grace;

I can hear the brush of angels’ wings, I see glory on each face,

Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place.”  Where have you felt the brush of angels’ wings? I’ve felt them when I prayed over a man who had a stroke, was in a hospital emergency room, and who made an almost instant recovery. I said to the family “New drugs can really turn around a stroke,” but the doctor heard me and replied: “No medication could have brought this recovery this fast!” God’s powerful Spirit made the difference. I’ve felt the tender presence of God as I looked into the faces of my three children just after they were born. I’ve felt the Holy Spirit stir my soul when somebody told amazing stories of healing or redemption.  For me and for others, the presence of God’s Spirit can produce goose bumps on my skin.

 

Today I want to suggest that many if not all of us have been witness to some miraculous, life-changing, or amazing experiences that point heavenward. Others have a story to tell about their life before they found Christ, and the way their life is now.  Each of these people can be a witness if they choose to tell their story! I hope you have chosen to tell your story already, or if you haven’t, that you will choose to do so.  Yes, being a witness means you might get questioned, but without your testimony, the light of God might stay under the bushel of your mouth that is not telling it, or your hand that is not writing it. Telling or writing about your encounter with something amazing or divine can, at the least, invite others to consider noticing the “brush of angels wings,” and open them to divine visits. In 1970, a Chaplain in the U.S. Army Chaplain’s Corp, Merlin Carothers, told his conversion story in his book Prison to Praise. In one section her wrote:

Grandmother was a sweet old lady, and I thought a great deal of Grandfather, but going to visit them was an ordeal I avoided as much as possible. They made me nervous. Grandmother always found an opportunity to talk about God!  One day when I went to see them … they were getting ready to go to church…. At the zero hour I had no choice.  Off we went together. The church service was held in a barn, but everyone there seemed to be happy. “Poor people,” I thought, “They don’t know anything about real life out there in the world, or they wouldn’t waste an evening in a barn.” The singing began and I picked up a hymnbook to follow the words. I at least had to look as if I was with it.  Suddenly I heard a deep voice speak directly in my ear. “What—what did you say?” I whirled around to find no one…. There was the voice again: “Tonight you must make a decision for me. ” I shook my head and said, “Why?”…. Was I losing my marbles? The voice was real! …. God was real! The service went on but I heard myself mutter “Yes God. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever you want.”

[Little did he know that the grandfather who sat next to him was having a conversation with God too!  He had been addicted to tobacco for forty years, but on that night he prayed this: “God, if you change Merlin, I’ll give up my chewing and smoking even if it kills me.” A commitment was being started by two men and God that night.] [Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1972, pp. 20-21]

 

That’s a testimonial. It is offered by one who had a first hand encounter with God. John the Baptist also had a message to share because he had first hand account. He had known Jesus! John was not the light, but he certainly bore witness to the light. How did he do it? One way was testimony. Testimony is when you declare to others what you have seen or heard. Giving your testimony is a wonderful way to witness: you are not making things up, and you’re not exaggerating what you’ve seen. You just tell what you saw, or heard, or tasted, or smelled, or touched.  John gave testimony. He even gave testimony about himself, saying: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”  John knew how to be a witness.

 

Have you ever experienced an extraordinary time when, in hindsight, you saw the hand of God? Here’s one I read:

Every Sunday morning at exactly 9 a.m. the twenty members of a church choir would assemble in the chapel of their small Southern Baptist congregation for a one-hour rehearsal before services…. One Sunday morning the tranquil air of the sleepy southern town was suddenly pierced by a loud blast. Residents rushed outdoors to see what happened and then watched in anguish as flames spurted out of the windows of the small church.  They checked the time: ten minutes past nine. Gasps, wails and shrieks filled the air as the townspeople raced toward the church. The volunteer firemen, who had preceded them by a few minutes, shook their heads mournfully as they arrived. In just seconds, the church had been totally consumed by flames. “It was probably a gas explosion” one of the firemen said. “It happened too fast. None of the choir members could have gotten out in time. I’m sorry. It doesn’t look like there are any survivors at all.”  [Just then, almost all at the same time, twenty cars pulled up to the fire, each one with a choir member on board! Although they were shocked and dismayed to see the church burning, each one individually had been delayed that morning “for separate, different, and unconnected reasons.”] [Believe in Small Miracles, Halberstam & Leventhal, Adams Media Cororation, Massachusetts, 1997, pp. 25-26.]

 

What story might you have about the presence of God? What story might you tell to encourage someone else to not only tell their story, but also to look again for special sights, or times of feeling the brush of angels’ wings?

 

Here’s one: About seven years ago our church published a book of Advent reflections written by church members. One of them was Nancy Force. With her permission, I want to share her reflection with you now. She wrote:

We were a small family of three, my father, my brother and me. But early in World War II that changed when my brother, Johnny, was killed. My father was never the same after that. He was always a loving, kind, Christian man. But a spark had died in him. When I was a young bride I received a phone call that Dad had died suddenly. I was devastated. I prayed long and hard that Dad and Johnny were together in heaven. As I was flying from southern Florida to California on a clear early morning, two rainbows appeared from white clouds far below. I took that as God’s answer to my prayer. There have been many rainbows in my life through the mountaintop and valley experiences. Years later, when my beloved second husband, Harley, died, Dick Wilson, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church said, “I have never seen so many rainbows!” They were over our home, the funeral, home, and the church.

 

By now it might seem like I am offering many stories for one sermon! Indeed. Stories are what witnessing is about! And your story is even more powerful that a second hand story.  Here is one of my own first hand stories.

I believe I’ve heard God’s voice twice. I heard just seven words. The first time was when I was considering whether to ask Mary Ann to marry me. Here is what I am sure I heard from God: “You love her.” Three words. That was in 1977. We got engaged on 7/7/77.  Then I didn’t hear from God again until 1985. I had been the Pastor of the first church I served for almost four years when I heard it.  Just four words: “Your work is done.” And I believed that staying there would not be blessed by God after that. I have not heard that voice since. But I am sure I heard it those two times. Seven words; but how those words changed my life.

 

Testimonies can be powerful. They often involve stories that engage listeners.  You can join me in pointing to the light, in bearing witness to the light like John the Baptist did! Tell your stories! You will find that you are not alone in experiencing Holy Ones touching human hearts.

 

Finally, let me close with a prayer written by Daniel Iverson. Published by Moody Press in 1935, the simple words to “Spirit of the Living God” were formed in Iverson’s mind when he was attending a revival in Orlando with George C. Stephans in 1926. Iverson was a Presbyterian Pastor from North Carolina. He heard Stephans’ sermon on the Holy Spirit and after that wrote this hymn the same day. Iverson’s final home was in Montreat, N.C. This was his prayer, and it is ours today: [The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Linda Jo McKim, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993,pp. 228-229]

“Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me;

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me;

Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me;

Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me.” Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  December 17, 2017

 

 

12-10-17 PREPARE

PREPARE

Malachi 3: 1-4; Mark 1: 1-8

 

Being prepared can often be a lesson taught through hindsight. For example on December 6, 1941—seventy-six years ago this past Wednesday—there were no preparations being made to protect the US Fleet in Hawaii from a pummeling air attack.  By December 7th, the attacks commenced. Days and weeks later there was talk of being better prepared next time. If you watch archival footage from New York television broadcasts that aired on September 10, 2001, you’ll see that there were no top stories that changed the face of our nation. But the next day was September 11th, 2001. I was in a presbytery meeting being elected to be the 2002 Moderator of Central Florida Presbytery. My phone started to vibrate; it was Mary Ann. I did not answer in the middle of a meeting. But she called again; and again. And other people—an inordinate number—started getting calls. I, and some others, went outside to answer our phones. I had no texting capability in 2001. She said a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers. As she was relating that incident, she said a second plane hit the other tower. And the rest, as you know, is history.  No one was prepared for that day. But since then the way we board planes; the way we enter theme parks, and the way we scrutinize those coming into our country has changed forever.  After September 11th, there was talk about getting prepared.  On June 16th, 2015, churches were largely places for worship, prayer, and Bible Study.  But on June 17th, 2015, a gunman entered a Bible Study … a Bible Study!… to join a group of kind members in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church who had welcomed that Caucasian man on an earlier date. This time, however, he brought a gun. He took it out and he fired on them all, killing nine, including the Senior Pastor.  Now churches have started to prepare. Our insurance company just ran a webinar on Wednesday. At our Session Retreat in October we talked for the first time about being prepared for such things.  And I am charged by the Session to have a meeting with Shores Police Chief Dembinsky on the subject.

 

Being prepared is very topical. How many people were prepared for months of no power in Puerto Rico? And how many of those people in line in front of me the week of the storm actually used their 15 gallons of water, leaving almost none for the next people? Preparation is a tricky thing; it can be overdone or underdone. Now our nation has a division of Homeland Security, the budget of which is been more than 42 billion dollars in 2017. The cost of preparation can be high.  For those who have children, some begin saving for their college at their birth; others “wait and see what happens.” For those who face their own inevitable death, some of them plan for it by teaching others what they know about the car, or the home, or the kitchen, or the finances. Some share important family stories with their children. Some write out what they would like to include in their funeral, and some lay aside money or an insurance policy to cover expenses. Some people do none of that.

 

In the third chapter of Malachi, he reports that God said this: “Behold I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight; he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.” God does not visit his people until the way has been prepared! Preparation is the prerequisite to the visit!  Last Sunday I described to the boys and girls how hard it is to wait; to wait for a baby; to wait for Christmas; to wait for Jesus! But wait we must. And during those hours, we can spend time foolishly or wisely.  We can, for example, do some spiritual assessments, to get ready. Can you create a truthful checklist about what you should do or say before you meet your Lord Jesus? Careful preparation can mean the difference between order and chaos. Did you see the great film “Hidden Figures,” about the under appreciated but absolutely needed women behind the men who were the faces of the space program?  It showed enormous preparation before sending a man into space. I have twice ridden with church members who had their own private plane. Each time we flew to a neighboring area for lunch. But before we took off, both pilots prepared. They did a walk around their airplane. And they followed a detailed checklist before take off, not missing or dismissing any item as unimportant. Preparation is vital to safe air travel.

 

Educators know that repetition of vital information is one effective tool. In Mark’s gospel, the writer repeats something that all faithful Jews had heard for ages: words from the prophet Isaiah.  Did you know, by the way, that in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem—that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls—the only complete, original scroll they have is of the book of Isaiah! It is big, and it includes these words that Mark quoted: “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”  The implication is that John was such a messenger as was Isaiah! And I submit that there are such messengers even today, even though it generally takes some time for people to look back and say: “that was a prophet.”  But do we have ears to hear? And in our preparation, have we looked over our checklists to make sure that all is ready for Jesus?

 

The story is told of preparations going very well for a great feast. A large number of people who were invited had said “yes” to attending. The anticipation and excitement built. Part of the reason for the banquet was to honor a special person, but it was a surprise! When the night of the banquet arrived, the guests gathered. The tables were beautifully set for the holiday season. The aroma of delicious foods was in the air. The candles were lighted. The musical ensemble was playing. The sound of conversation and of laughter filled the room. Later there would be singing, dancing, and festivities. But the time to start came and went. Soon people in the crowd started to ask what was the delay. The host said; “The dinner has not started because our guest of honor has not arrived.” But in making some phone calls, the truth was learned: in keeping the guest of honor from knowing the plans, it turns out that no one had actually asked him to attend!

 

At Christmastime with all the gatherings to which you might be invited, or that you might host: have you remembered to invite the guest of honor-Jesus? May love—the guest—be included in your Christmas gatherings.

Let me close with a prayer offered by the late Henri Nouwen:

O Lord, all you ask of me is a simple “yes,” a simple act of trust so that your choices for me can bear fruit in my life. I do not want you to pass me by. I do not want to be so busy with my way of living, my plans and projects, my relatives, friends and acquaintances, that I do not even notice that you are with me, closer to me than anyone else.  I do not want to be blind to the loving gestures that come from your hands, nor deaf to the caring words that come from your mouth. I want to see you as you walk with me and hear you as you speak to me …. I know you walk with me. Help me walk with you today, tomorrow and always. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 10, 2017

 

12-03-17 WATCH

WATCH

Mark 13: 24-37

 

Some of you will remember the game show “The $25,000 Pyramid hosted by Dick Clark. A celebrity guest was paired up with an ordinary contestant who hoped to win money on the show. Money would mostly be won by answering questions within a period of time. Here is an example of the clues:  A Heinz Ketchup bottle; a baby to be born; a train, a red light.  Okay constants! What is the answer? Yes! “Things you wait for.” Here’s another one: A pot to boil; Jesus’ return; a child out past curfew. What’s the answer? Yes! “Things you watch for!”  Watching and waiting are two of the hardest things for many people to do, so certain facilities, such as hospitals and doctor’s offices, have rooms, with groups of people in them. The rooms are called: “waiting rooms!” In a waiting room I have seen people pace, sigh, study their phone, play games on their phone, read a book or magazine, walk back and forth to a coffee pot, bathroom, or vending machine and more, but just sitting and waiting few do well. We generally want to do be doing something. In the old days, a husband at a farmhouse was often told to go boil water while a doctor was tending to his wife about to deliver a child. It might have been slightly helpful, but mostly it gave the anxious father something to do! Here is what Mary Ann said when I asked her about the birth of our first child, Christopher.

 

October 2, 1980.  The day was circled on the calendar.  The day my first child would enter the world.  Nine months of shopping, assembling, doctor appointments, growing larger – waiting!

I was going to work until the baby arrived.  Everything was ready at the end of September. My good friend, Teri, was due to have her baby the week after mine and we rejoiced as we got ready and as we slowed down waiting for the impending births.  October 2 I woke up with great expectation.  Today is the day.  The baby had other plans.  I kept going to work.  I kept answering the phone calls from relatives – “any news???”.  I kept smiling as my neighbors and co-workers exclaimed, “You’re still here!!!”  October 9 came and Teri had her baby.  I visited her at the hospital feeling depressed and wondering when it would be my turn.  More waiting. We lived in New Jersey and it got cold and none of my shoes or coats would fit.  Still heading to work feeling like an elephant.  More waiting.  Frustration abounded.  I’m sure I cried a few times.  Finally, on October 22, I started feeling the labor pangs and we headed to the hospital.  Christopher entered the world on the 23rd – a full three long weeks late.  I can still feel that frustration that I felt during that time.  It was totally worth the wait.  Maybe I have learned some patience from that experience!  A p.s. to the story – I didn’t have to wait as long for Matt and Jenny – they both came 9 days early!

 

Many find it difficult to wait and watch for anything! And on top of that, we have trouble just being, don’t we? We want to be doing. A man retires from a lifetime career. He is more attached than he realized to doing his job. Suddenly there is no job to do; at least not that job.  Can he just be, resting in a job well done, retirement income, and time for things that got pushed aside before? Or will he need something to do? It’s a hard adjustment for many. Women also can go through that when they leave a career or have the last child leave the house. Just being is difficult. Yet in Psalm 46:10 we read:  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  God still has plans for your life, even if you don’t see them. And sometimes the plan is “wait.” “Really Lord? I’m terrible at waiting? Can’t you give me something to do?”

 

At this time of the year we are asked to wait; and to watch.  Through the eyes of a child we are only waiting and watching for another 22 days, which, of course, is Christmas, but it feels like an eternity to them! But what about the times when the prophets preached, and the people heard things like: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel’” Isaiah declared that in chapter 7, verse 14. Isaiah proclaimed his message from 742-687 B.C! That’s over 700 years before Christ was born! Sometimes salvation seems to take an eternity. Sometimes God’s response seems to appear slower than ketchup or steak sauce from a bottle. What about “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given?” Same prophet; same timeframe. Musicians, theologians, writers, and even pastors can compress the time, so that waiting doesn’t seem so unreasonable.  But babies, and trains, and leaves changing color and people on walkers can hardly be rushed. They are life lessons to us all: to gain some patience; to wait; and to be. Being is the state when we realize that we are loved by God by who we are, not what we have done. Look at newborn children. They can do nothing like to help with the dishes, change diapers, change sheets, or prepare food. The blessing that is a baby is being. We start in a fetal position and we may end our life in a fetal position with God like a caring mother or father, not cherishing our accomplishments, but cherishing the ways we are made in God’s image. God loves to see that in us.

 

There is another group of people who do not wait well: people who say they can read prophecies and tell when the Son of man will return. They are poor waiters, and so they predict when they need to just be in heaven’s waiting room.  Even Jesus saw such people when he was living on earth. He named their predictions and he saw what they saw. But at the end, of all the predictions that have been made, listen to Jesus’ response:

If anyone says to you ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is,” do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will arise and show you signs and wonders, to lead the elect astray if possible….But in those days … when the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give light, and stars begin to fall from heaven … they will see the  Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory….But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father. Take heed, therefore, and watch, for you do not know when that time will come. [Mark 13: 21-33]

 

Who knew our earth’s fate was to be the waiting room for seeing Christ? In this waiting room, we watch; some work who are of able body and mind; and some just wait. Every one of those activities is important, but not easy.

The Irish avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett penned the intriguing two act play “Waiting for Godot.” It is staged very sparsely with one bare tree and two tramps in bowler hats.  Sparknotes include this summary of the plot:

 

Two men, Vladimir and Estragon, meet near a tree. They converse on various topics and reveal that they are waiting there for a man named Godot. While they wait, two other men enter. Pozzo is on his way to the market to sell his slave, Lucky. He pauses for a while to converse with Vladimir and Estragon. Lucky entertains them by dancing and thinking, and Pozzo and Lucky leave.

After Pozzo and Lucky leave, a boy enters and tells Vladimir that he is a messenger from Godot. He tells Vladimir that Godot will not be coming tonight, but that he will surely come tomorrow. Vladimir asks him some questions about Godot and the boy departs. After his departure, Vladimir and Estragon decide to leave, but they do not move as the curtain falls.

The next night, Vladimir and Estragon again meet near the tree to wait for Godot. Lucky and Pozzo enter again, but this time Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb [mute]. Pozzo does not remember meeting the two men the night before. They leave and Vladimir and Estragon continue to wait.

Shortly after, the boy enters and once again tells Vladimir that Godot will not be coming. He insists that he did not speak to Vladimir yesterday. After he leaves, Estragon and Vladimir decide to leave, but again they do not move as the curtain falls, ending the play.

 

 

 

Watching and waiting for Christ will not be like waiting for Godot. Christ will come. But in the meantime, life goes on: with conversations, with tragedies, with encounters with strangers, and with messengers.  Like a sparsely staged play, if your life were a play, would it largely take place in a living room, or on a road; in an office or in a care center? And if you were the director of your own play, how would you stage your life, waiting for the return of Christ?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 3, 2017