01-28-18 THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS

THE AUTHORITY OF JESUS

Mark 1: 21-28

 

Is there an authority crisis in our world? Those with authority sometimes wield their power carelessly or in self-serving ways, like the doctor examining our young female gymnasts while violating them. Or powerful bosses have also been shown to bully or pressure people into doing thing against their will. With the exceptions of dictators or pharaohs or monarchs, we hope for justice and a balance of power. Until the last few years, Cuba has been kept years behind other countries because of the oppression of the Castro regime. North Korea puts up a good front of authority, but visitors who get a peek behind the veneer see poverty and ignorance. It was this week in the year 2000 that General Douglas McArthur’s widow passed away over one hundred years of age. McArthur at one time had unquestioned authority and power. But it was not his own; it was granted to him. Yes, generals act in consultation with their governments. CEOs of major corporations may share power with their board or staff. By contrast, in the Presbyterian Church, by the design of founder John Calvin, our General Assembly has the authority to enact only what its commissioners empower it to do. The actions can start with church members, then go to a local Session, then on to a presbytery and, perhaps, a General Assembly. There is purpose in the way we are ordered. “Absolute power can corrupt absolutely” Calvin said, so no one individual is granted the authority that we give to Jesus, and to the Bible, or God.  But any of us can call on God for strength and guidance. The twelve disciples—and by extension you and I—have the power of Jesus for helping, healing, and witnessing if we call on that power!  Jesus empowered us when he said this “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20)  Powerlessness may have pervaded many areas of society, but recently some women, people of color, and people of poverty are working to reclaim dignity and power.

 

Whether we are looking at this century or the first century, into a hope-dimmed world slips glimmering beams of power. Mark’s gospel tells us that the teachings and actions of Jesus were such that all who were around him said he taught “as if he had authority.” Even the ones in power were amazed at his power to exorcise unclean spirits.  (Mark 1:27) Into the world of the seemingly possessed; into the world of the seemingly incurable came the power and authority of Jesus. We know Jesus had the authority to do what he did; he always told others it came from above, it was not his own. At the end of Matthew’s gospel in what is called the “Great Commission,” Jesus claimed his power saying, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given unto me.” After that, the implication was to go and do what he told us to do: baptize, make disciples, and teach others about Jesus. We have been commissioned to do that, and like a military command, it is an order, not a softly worded request. Jesus empowers our work by the Holy Spirit! Jesus needs our partnership because he no longer has a physical body! We—the church—have become the body of Christ, going into the world with human care and hope. We have the authority and the commission to do that! Jesus is counting on us!

 

Do you wish you had great power when dealing with human issues? Sometimes situations can make us feel powerless. Here’s an example: thirty-two years ago today, NASA programmers and engineers felt powerless as they watched the Space Shuttle Challenger blow up in the air on a cold January day. Dreadful powerlessness. Another example: some children who long for strength they do not possess become enamored with superheroes that have powers far beyond their own. They imagine being powerful. Others love fantasy stories like those found in the Harry Potter series and try to claim the power in each individual wand. Youth may seek power through sports, role-playing games, or acting. Still, sometimes people can feel utterly powerless.

 

Anorexia nervosa and depression can be power-draining diseases. My friend Dr. Dan Hale, a psychologist, has spoken painfully about how powerless he was to save his daughter from depression. She died in its darkness and its grip. No one in singer Karen Carpenter’s family could save her from the body image she perceived through her eating disorder that took her life. And Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner, in his book Telling Secrets, says depression took his father’s life. He sat in his own car in a closed garage and secretly started his car. As young Fred grew up, he learned how to give power to another person, and not to try to control them. Only when he finally gave power and control back to others who were struggling did they begin to work toward their own rescue.  That power struggle, skimmed from the milk of enlightenment, led Beuchner to write these words: “Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you—your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends—because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business whether they use the word ‘God’ or not.” [San Francisco:  Harper Collins, 1991, pp. 92.]

 

Can the transcended word of Jesus whisper any word of hope to you, or someone you know, who is (in a way) possessed a disease, an obsession, or a weakness?  I believe it can.  A healing took place in Capernaum one day, and Jesus performed it. And the same power that healed that day can turn around the lives of others who are broken, over-medicated, co-dependent, or addicted.  Here are three directions we can follow.

 

First, Jesus prayed to his Heavenly Father, asking for healing for those who were ill. Many were healed. People in our day, like Dr. Larry Dossey, have shown our modern minds how those both prayed for and medically treated heal faster than those who receive medicine without prayer. Trust that God loves you and your loved ones and can see life’s picture—including the future—better than we can. Even with his authority, Jesus did not pull rank and save himself from the cross. By remaining faithful to the last, he now sits at the right hand of power.

 

Next, Jesus had authority over wind and waves when he was on the Sea of Galilee. Back in 2016, did the people of Daytona Beach pray hard enough that Hurricane Matthew jutted east just enough that the dangerous winds largely missed us? Go back and look at the storm’s track. Just off our coast, it seemed to move east; then it moved back on track. Here’s another story: A Methodist minister shared a graveside service with me some years ago. As we approached the cemetery, the rain that had come down hard every since the funeral procession had departed from the funeral home came down steadily.  I got out of the car deciding to bring my umbrella. “Do you think we’re going to get wet out here?” I said to the other minister. His wife answered me. “It won’t rain during my husbands’ graveside services!” As I was about to ask her how she was so sure, he was the one who replied. “No, it won’t rain. Back when I had my one of my first graveside services, it looked like we might all get wet. So I bowed my head and said to Jesus, ‘Dear Lord, you did so many mighty things, including calming the storm. I don’t think it’s too much to ask if you will hold the rain while I offer your blessing to a grieving family.. Thanks for your help. Amen.’ And in more than 50 years of that man’s ministry, it had not rained during his graveside service! Sometimes could it be that we have not because we ask not?

 

Finally, as the serenity prayer puts it: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Even Jesus could not change other people’s willfulness. Nor can we. But we can be a witness, with our actions and words.  We can pray in faith for the things Jesus wants to do through us. All authority in heaven and earth has been given to him. We can connect with it if we are bold enough to ask for that power.  Let us pray:

Heavenly Father of our Lord Jesus: sometimes we want to do what the disciples did: they called on Jesus to do everything! Through the years people in trouble have said, “Call a priest, call a minister, or call an elder.” But to those who ask for Jesus to work through them, power is offered. Send us forth empowered to pray, to teach, and to invite others to know Jesus. Give us the courage to both ask and to act, so that through Jesus, we can change our world. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          January 28, 2018

01-21-18 A GLIMPSE OF ST. ANDREW

A GLIMPSE OF ST. ANDREW

Mark 1: 14-20

 

The late William Barclay was one of the most beloved commentators on the New Testament. He was the one who wrote the Daily Bible Study series, used by many classes here at Westminster. What you may not know is that he was a Scot; an author, a radio and television presenter, a Church of Scotland minister (which means Presbyterian to us!) and a Bible Professor at the University of Glasgow!  In his book called The Master’s Men, he says about Andrew, the first (some gospels say the second) disciple called by Jesus:

Andrew has the very unusual distinction of being the patron saint of no fewer than three different countries:[and the other two countries may surprise you] Russia, Greece, and Scotland. There is not very much direct information, but the information the gospel story does contain is such that it paints an unmistakable picture of the kind of man Andrew was. [He] was a native of Bethsaida (John 1:44). He was a fisherman by trade and it was when he was plying his trade and mending his nets that Jesus called him to be a fisher of men (Mark 1: 16-18; Matthew 4: 18-20).  Andrew began by being a follower of John the Baptist, and according to John’s telling of the story, Andrew was the first of all the twelve to attach himself to Jesus, along with John…. No sooner did Andrew discover Jesus for himself that he went to find his brother Peter [really called Simon] to bring him to Jesus. [Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1959, p. 41]

 

We should add that Dr. Barclay missed an important other fact: Andrew is the patron saint of golf too! In fact he has a course or two named after him!

Tradition says that he was crucified by the Romans on a “Chi” shaped cross (just check out the “Chi” on the front of our lectern; it’s a Greek letter that looks like an X, but it’s the first letter in the word “Christos” for “Christ. ”) Andrew, interestingly, is a Greek name, not a Jewish one! Do you know what it means? Manly! One author put it this way: “He seem[ed] to have a quiet strength of character and a helpfulness on which others could always rely. At the feeding of the five thousand, it is he who tells Jesus of the boy with the five barley loaves and two fish. Again, it is to Andrew that Philip comes to for advice when some Greeks requested a meeting with Jesus.” [Jesus and the Twelve, Good Will, Inc. Gastonia, N.C.]

 

So we know those things about Andrew directly. But what can we infer about him, and what can we learn from him?  What is it after all, that makes Andrew such an honored man to so many groups of people?  First, along with the other 11 Apostles, he was called to come as he was by Jesus, to be a disciple. There wasn’t a test; there wasn’t an interview. There was invitation. He just responded and followed! There isn’t a person alive who cannot be a disciple of Jesus. The extraordinary thing that disciples of Jesus do to change them is they accept the invitation! “Come and learn!” we may say to others. “Come and be baptized if you aren’t already, and start a new life following Jesus!” Those words might be part of your invitation. Andrew invited his own brother to follow Jesus according to John 1: 40-42. Listen to the way John’s gospel records it: “One of the two who heard John [the Baptist] speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother, Simon, and said to him, “We have found the Messiah!” [Messiah means “Christ.”] Andrew invited others to find the one who he found too! Yet Andrew was just an ordinary person who followed an extraordinary Savior. He followed; then he invited others to do that too!

That could describe you and me. Ordinary people, like Andrew, turned to his brother, Simon, and said this: “We have found the Messiah.” And this is what he did: “He brought his brother to Jesus.” Two great actions for any of us to do: inviting people to meet Jesus or bringing others to meet him! By that action, Andrew was an evangelist. As we said last week, being an evangelist is just bringing someone to Christ. Then we can let Christ do the rest! How do we do that when Jesus lived ages ago? One of the most common ways is for you to invite someone to, or you bring someone to your church! I met Jesus in church; others often do too! I declared Jesus as my Savior in a church—a common place for such a life-changing declaration. Andrew said it this way according to John’s gospel: “I have found the Messiah.”  John Calvin, the founder of the Presbyterian Church, wrote this about Andrew:

Andrew has scarcely a spark [of faith], yet, by means of it, he enlightens his brother. Woe to our indolence, therefore, if we do not, after having been fully enlightened, endeavor to make others partakers of the same grace. We may observe in Andrew two things which Isaiah requires from the children of God: namely, that each should take his neighbor by the hand, and next, that he should say, Come, let us go up into the mountain of the Lord, and he will teach us.” (Isa. ii. 3.)  [Calvin’s Commentary]

 

Part of my call and faith story involves a man named Andrew. I share this story with our elders whenever I train them. My first paid position in a church was as “Assistant Janitor.” That was my title! After school in my high school years, I would drive to my large Presbyterian Church, the place where I was baptized, the place where I sang in the choir, and the place where I ushered when the choir was not singing, and I would clean God’s house.  I put money in the bank for college and I built ties to my faith that are still with me today. The Head Janitor was a tall black man. His name was Andrew, and he was a man of great faith. After we would take a break from waxing floors or vacuuming carpets, we would sit down and drink a soda. On more than one occasion he said to me: “You oughta be a preacher!” “No I would say quickly.” “I’m going to go into business like my Dad.” And he would look at me and shake his head. It was as if to say, “The Lord has different plans for you!” He did. Thanks to Andrew for inviting me to be a Christian minister.

 

In my work for the Theological Education Fund of the Presbyterian Church (USA), I was always on the lookout for people to go into the gospel ministry. In less than10 years, Baby Boomers like me will be retired. Who will carry on the preaching, the teaching, the administrating and the Pastoral Care of a church? The need will be great. So people like Elder Tobias Caskey has said “yes” to the call to get the advanced degree and become ordained Minister of the Word and Sacrament. There might be some here today who want to do that. But for the rest of you, all you need to do is be an Andrew; a man of integrity who invites others to meet Jesus. You might say: “Come try my church,” and here they might indeed meet Christ. Invitations can make disciples. Not everyone accepts the invitation. But we know 12 did in the Bible and how many more have followed? I invite people all the time! Last year forty-one persons said “yes” and joined our congregation! Congregations grow in part by doing what Andrew did: “He brought someone to Christ.” I tell this to my elder classes as well:  I am a Presbyterian because when we moved to St. Louis we had not found a nearby Methodist Church. Our next door neighbor walked across his back yard to ours and invited my father to bring the family his Presbyterian Church the next Sunday. It was there, a few years later, that I found Jesus Christ, was baptized, and claimed him as my Lord and Savior. And I cleaned pews! Who knows what God has in store?

 

Remember, in our text from Mark we heard that Jesus invited, and Andrew and Simon dropped what they were doing and followed him. Like Scotland sometimes feels forgotten in the shadow of England and the seat of the queen, Andrew might have felt slightly forgotten. He had been invited first, but Simon Peter got the spotlight. So what did Andrew do? He still followed, and kept connecting others to Jesus. Being an Andrew blessed Jesus and his ministry.

Go and be like Andrew: follow Jesus, and lead others to the Christ.

 

Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus: many here have learned about you, found you, and followed you. Remind us that not just the Twelve, but also disciples who came after them, have the power of the Holy Spirit in them too. Give them the courage to say what needs to be said, do what needs to be done, and to invite those who might be lost to be found. We will stand in solidarity with them. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  January 21, 2018

 

 

01-14-18 SHAKING DUST OFF YOUR FEET

SHAKING DUST OFF YOUR FEET

John 1: 46-51

 

Today we will do three things: first, we will imagine what it was like for the first disciples to evangelize, that is, bring others to Jesus; second, we will look at the resistance even Jesus himself faced; and third we will look at the probable resistance that you and I might face inviting people to church or to Jesus, or both.

 

First, we will imagine what it was like for the disciples to evangelize. The message was perhaps not perfectly clear to those men who were busy with their trades or businesses when Jesus started to meet them and say “follow me.” To drop what they were doing in order to become, as the old saying goes, “fishers of men,” was a huge shift in their daily work.  As I have read about them, these men were gruff, not ones who could easily be talked into anything. How did they answer the call of Christ? And how would they make the shift to inviting others to follow him too?  In our “Hollywood Jesus” study on Wednesdays, these questions occur in what are called  the “white spaces,”  that is, information that the Bible doesn’t tell us between the words and we have to infer. In the Bible we read this: “Jesus decided to go to Galilee, found Philip and said to him, ‘follow me’” [After that Philip found Nathaniel. We’ll get to Nathaniel in a minute.] But in reading that, your mind may not fill in any response or reaction by Philip. If you were filming it, you’d have to decide: would Philip shrug and follow? Would Philip look at Jesus as if he had lost his mind? Would Philip start to turn away and then turn back? Notice we’re not putting words in Philips’ mouth because the Bible records no response for him. But we are making a decision about reaction. Reactions to the question like “Will you follow Jesus?” are not often followed with an instant “Okay!” The people Christ need should be loyal and not easily swayed to follow a false leader. So it is natural that they might have a reaction to dropping what they were doing to begin a complete change in their lives.  Evangelizing would not be in the wheelhouse of any of those men. But meeting Jesus empowered them; and meeting Jesus in a vision empowered the Apostle Paul to evangelize the rest of his life.  Meeting Jesus—through a sermon, through a hymn, through a testimony, or through the power of the Holy Spirit—has been known to change people’s lives. We’re in the business to bringing people to Jesus to change people’s lives! But how do we face the resistance caused by what some people have read, by other Christians who have sail or don hurtful things, or by a general suspicion—or even paranoia—about religion? Stay with me!

 

Let’s next look at how Jesus handled resistance. Today’s text illustrates how Jesus one time handled caustic comments.  Listen to John 1: 15-19:

Philip found Nathaniel and said to him, “We have found the one of whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph.”

 

Now here is where you put on your film directing hat! With what inflection does Nathaniel reply? Does he say playfully “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  Or does he, with a bit of a sneer, ask” “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” If I were the director, I would choose that second one.  I think Nathaniel doubts that any significant gift from God could come from that backwater town of Nazareth.  Remember how the Wise Men first went to Jerusalem to seek the newborn king instead of to tiny Bethlehem? People couldn’t believe that God chose to do significant things in insignificant places. So Jesus hears that sneering answer: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Jesus could have been hurt by the words. He could have taken the words as a challenge and gotten into a shouting match. Those are natural human reactions. But instead, Jesus was ready for Nathaniel. Our Lord offered him a disarming compliment: “Behold, an Israelite indeed in whom there is no guile!” (Guile means “sly or cunning intelligence.”) Nathaniel is caught off guard. And by the end of the exchange, the charisma—(compelling attractiveness, often divinely conferred)—the charisma of Jesus lowered the defensive walls around Nathaniel’s heart.  This is part of Jesus’ authority and part of his draw. Once barriers of resistance drop—and they can be substantial—people who are introduced to Jesus in person, in prayer, in song, or in a sermon get to  “Meet the Master,”  as the Rev. Peter Marshall described it. One of his famous sermons had that title: “Mr. Jones, Meet the Master.” Today I’m inviting you to have that experience of inviting someone else to “meet the Master.” You’ll likely not use those dramatic words, but you can still invite others to come to your church to learn about Jesus!  Like the parable of the sower—that describes how 100 seeds might just yield as few as one good plant—you too might invite a hundred people over the course of your lifetime. But out of those hundred, one might say “Yes” to Jesus; to following like Philip did, and like Nathaniel eventually did. Who knows if that one invitation produces the next, pastor, or Sunday School Teacher, or Billy Graham or Mother Teresa? For Jesus’ parable says, “It is worth the work for the one.”

 

So yes, it was not easy for the disciples to evangelize—to invite others to follow Jesus. It was not easy for Jesus to face sarcasm and rejection—in one instance he actually left the Jewish side of the Sea of Galilee and went to the other side—the Gentile side—where he healed a man and gained a big following of enthusiastic believers. But now we come to you and to me.

 

This is our third and final point, but it matters the most for the future of the faith:  What will you face if you invite others to our church, to learn about Jesus; to hear that God loves them?  Resistance? The word “no?” Hesitating willingness? Yes. Any and all of the above, and I’ll tell you why: religion, church, God, and others such entities are loaded with baggage for many. Almost no one is a clean slate; they have all had either good or bad experiences, or positive or negative thoughts, about all three. So you may get blowback from a person who sharply reacts to your simple invitation: “Would you like to join me at my church on Sunday?” Some may actually accept your invitation especially if they know you will meet them and sit with them. Others may “duck and cover,” not wanting to consider such a threatening or painful venture.  Here’s an example: A man I admired a great deal started coming to our church because his daughter was a member. He came and he kept coming for months, and so one day, I asked him “Jim (not his real name,) would you like to join the church?” The man who I had enjoyed seeing for weeks, even months, gave me a cold stare. “No thank you,” and walked away.  It was eight months later—a long time of seeing him attend, when we met each other under different circumstances. “I’m ready to tell you why I have not joined your church,” he said to me. “One day when I was a little boy (which had to be in the late 1930s) a deacon from our Baptist church came by our house unexpectedly one night. My dad invited him in asking ‘What can I do for you?’ And the deacon said, “We have noticed that you are not keeping up with your pledge. Your church needs that support and I’m here to collect.”  Now times were hard during the Depression and Jim told me, “I could see my Dad’s facing starting to turn red, and the veins on his neck getting big. ‘You’ll need to go now,’ he said firmly to the deacon.” Having the deacon ask for money pushed his family away from that church. “And that” Jim told me, “is why I won’t join a church.” Nearly seventy years had gone by since that night, and the grown man sitting across from me had never joined a church again for that reason. “Goodness that is a painful story,” I said to him. “You don’t ever have to join; just keep coming. But just so you know: We will never treat a pledge like a bill, and no one will visit your home to collect.”

Jim needed to trust again; to trust a church; to trust a man of the cloth. Interestingly, I think it was through our love of baseball that he learned to trust me. He finally joined and set aside the seventy-year-old reason he had resentful feelings toward a church.

 

You know, I think there are a number of people out there—and in here—like   that; they have been hurt, or insulted, or abused by someone in a church.  Jesus said to his disciples if they were ever rejected to “shake the dust off their feet” and move on. I think that is easier said than done. Did you see the 14-year-old girl who got pulled from a mudslide in Montecito California this week? She was covered with mud.  Sometimes I think the pain and anguish that others have felt not just from Christians, but from bullies or other abusers is not like dust on their feet  but mud on their body and soul.  So I think it helps us to realize this: we may be inviting traumatized or hurting people to come to our church. And here I hope they will find welcome, comfort, and hope. They may not trust that invitation initially, but let them be while standing with them. Maybe their hurt can turn to hope.

 

Carol Howard Merritt is a Presbyterian minister who wrote the book just published last year called Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church. [HarperOne, 2017] She writes painfully about some even hurt by people in their own church.

 

The wounds were easy to see. People on the Internet hinted at them through status updates with “trigger warnings,” soul-baring from new atheists, and tortured blogs of ex-fundamentalists. I worked with the religiously wounded in church and met them at retreats. They were people with the sort of trauma that comes when your injuries are wrapped up in the condemnation of the soul, the shunning of families, or the shaming of flesh….The lacerations ranged in acuteness. A man revealed a paper cut when he told me about being scolded by a haughty elder lecturing him on his shabby shoes. He knew his parents couldn’t afford dress shoes, and to protect their dignity and his own, he refused to attend church…. Still in other moments, I witnessed deep gouges inflicted by a manipulative man in his collar seducing a young boy …. It was staggering to see what people suffered in the name of God. [p. 24]

 

Friends, the walking wounded are out there, and even in here. But can you join me in gently inviting others, listening to their sometimes painful stories, or feeling their icy responses, giving space for healing, and still leading them to Jesus for unconditional love? There is a hurting world of people, some of whom are turning from churches because of pain. Others have listened to many stories and have lumped all churches and all religions together. Let’s allow the light of love and of Christ to welcome hurting, shamed, and prodigal people back to the Father’s house. He is waiting to welcome those fragile people home.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           January 14, 2018

01-07-18 A DAY OF NEW BEGINNINGS: THE DO-OVER DAY

A DAY OF NEW BEGINNINGS: THE DO-OVER DAY

Acts 19: 1-5; Mark 1: 1-11

 

On my computer, and perhaps on yours, there is an icon I can click that will allow me to restart my computer. A reset button is handy to have on a computer. I also have a button in my car that resets my trip odometer, allowing me to easily calculate gas mileage or distance traveled. In golf when friends are playing, they sometimes offer a do-over on the first tee called a “mulligan” if the first shot is botched. In children’s games when someone doesn’t like the way things are going they might call out “do-over” and hope to re play that last match, or point, or round. With board games players can just clear a scorecard or announce that a new round is starting. Ah do-overs; what a nice world it would be if we all got do-overs especially when we learn what a problem our rash or spontaneous decision has created! Around ages between 20 and 25, the brain in most young adults has formed the part that understands consequences. (As I said, in MOST young adults!) Back in teenage years that part of the brain has yet to form. Parents, therefore, are charged with protecting and guiding their children enough that some lethal or dreadful mistake is not made. In games we may get do-overs, but in life? In fantasy, writers have come up with scenarios where a portion of a person’s life is lived over or viewed until they learn something they are supposed to learn. Wikipedia lists 40 films with that kind of plot! Some films included the famous “Groundhog Day, and the more recent “Edge of Tomorrow;” one called “A Day,” and another called “Before I Fall.” Other titles include “Christmas Every Day,” and “The Last Day of Summer.” Ah if only fantasy were reality, so that if we broke a terrible law, or started an unplanned pregnancy, or made a bad investment or purchase, we could just go back and make a different choice. But realty doesn’t have actual reset buttons; we can repent of things we did; we can ask for and hopefully receive forgiveness; we can seek another job if we lose our last one; or we can move to a second relationship if we ruin a first one. We can learn from our choices and adapt our actions based on yesterday’s choices. But we don’t get a reset. What we do get is a new day! Today is new from yesterday; and tomorrow will be new compared with today! We do get chances to take another run at life after some sleep, or thought, or prayers, or all three. Of all the seasonal tales people watch in December, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is perhaps the best example of someone getting a do-over life, but yes, it is a work of fiction. Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by three Spirits, the ghost of Christmas yet to come was the most terrifying. As the Spirit departed in his dream, the miserly Scrooge cried out “I will live in the Past, the Present, and the future! …The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. O Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob, on my knees!” [CHRISTMAS BOOKS, Oxford University Press,1954, p.71] What would you give to start a new direction in your life, this day; this hour? You can, you know! You need not be visited by three spirits, but by the Spirit of the Living God! Then the direction of your life can change! The Spirit has done that time and time again. For example in Mark’s gospel, even though John is baptizing people as they agree to repent of their sins, even John admits that his baptism is not adequate; it doesn’t create the change in one’s life that the Holy Spirit creates.  If you activate the Holy Spirit in your life watch out! The Spirit starts to work at your own invitation! Who knows if you will love more unconditionally, or care more completely, or help more intentionally? Who knows how God could change your life if you were to hand the wheel over to Jesus? “Jesus take the wheel!” as the song title suggests. Inviting Jesus, or the wonderful Spirit, into your life can change things for the better!  John said Jesus would actually baptize his followers with the Holy Spirit. [Mark 1:8] Some people who love the King James Bible read that passage this way:  “Jesus will baptize his followers with the Holy Ghost.” Have you ever been baptized in the Holy Ghost?!! Let me tell you, you can’t hem and haw about your answer; you’d know if you were baptized in the Holy Ghost! Some of our Pentecostal friends could describe it; sometimes people speak in tongues; sometimes others fall to the ground slain in the Spirit. Sometimes people raise their hands and openly weep. It is a dramatic event that few Presbyterians have seen. But the Spirit waits for our invitation too. The Spirit has waited on your invitation to the dance of new life; your invitation to the change from spiraling or destructive directions; your invitation to “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord, to Thee!”  This can be such a day; a to say “Lord, I have had done some things last year I am not proud of doing; and I have said some things last year I am not proud of saying. Today, I want a do-over. I understand it comes with remorse and repentance and all the rest, but I’m all in.” That’s what you can do today. It means you will have to submit to God’s will, but with you in the driver’s seat, how did things go in 2017? There are new possibilities in 2018! If you are ready for a change; a new beginning; a fresh start this is the day. Others have taken that step and did not look back! They embraced their past life (as Scrooge did); they acknowledged their present life too; but their commitment to make changes in their future life was the life changer.

 

There is a commercial for a medication that has people singing “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.” Don’t put off to tomorrow what you can do today! Can you embrace a new life even at the end of our communion service, today?  I have a supply of round discs in my office. I hand one out to any person who makes the excuse, when asked about a task, “I’ll do it as soon as I get a round to it.” So I give them a round TUIT! “There!” I say. “Now you don’t have an excuse!

 

Can you make this commitment today? When you take the bread and the cup today, hear Jesus say to you: “I love you and I’ve given my life for you.” Then you can say in a whispered voice or in your head:  “I accept your life, and I give you mine in return.” What a gift Jesus gave us! What a gift we can give Him if we more nearly do what Jesus would do, and respond more like Jesus.  Singlehandedly you could begin to change your world today by taking those steps.  Will you join me?  Let us pray:

 

O Spirit, I will life differently! I will seek to love my neighbors more dearly, and follow Jesus more nearly. I will work for there to be more peace on earth, and I will let it begin with me. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  January 7, 2018