Joshua 3: 3-5; Hebrews 7: 23-28

Ever since the year the words were written—1874—Christians of every denomination have joined writer Frances Ridley Havergal in singing the words: “Take my life and let it be consecrated Lord to Thee.” It’s a prayer; it’s a plea. But I suspect most of the time we sing it with minds that are wandering through a myriad of thoughts, like noticing what someone else is wearing, or thinking about lunch. Today I will be inviting you to join me in singing that from your soul, with the plea that Havergal first intended. In a biographical description, Carl P. Davis Jr. writes this: “Her own account is preserved in a conversation with her sister: ‘[On that day I first saw clearly the blessedness of true consecration. I saw it as a flash of electric light, and what you see you can never unsee. There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness.” [Glory to God: A Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2016, p. 664.] There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness.” I’ve heard people in AA programs voice the same thing- “There must be full surrender before there can be full blessedness. I’ve heard people say the same thing the day after giving themself to Christ in a Billy Graham Crusade. What I’m not sure I’ve heard is regular church going Christians saying it. Sometimes I think we go through the church motions and depart. But if you truly invite God to take your life and let it be consecrated—that is, dedicated or rededicated for a Divine purpose—the lights may flash, the sparks may fly, or the memory of baptismal waters may flood your thoughts. Your life could be changed; your life could be more blessed from this day forward.

In Joshua chapter 3, listen to what is said there: Joshua told the people: “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the Lord will do amazing things among you.” Do have a time in your life when you consecrated yourself before God? Today you’ll have a chance. I remember sitting in my Youth Group at Bonhomme Presbyterian Church, in Chesterfield Missouri with a youth leader and his guitar. He began playing, and we began singing: “It only takes a spark to get a fire going; and soon all those around can warm up to it’s glowing. That’s how it is with God’s love, once you’ve experienced it. You spread his love, to everyone, you want to pass it on.” That night the lives of several people were changed in the singing of the song, the praying of the friends, and the power of God’s Holy Spirit. When else might people become consecrated? At Solutions By-The-Sea, Tobias Caskey has seen several men move from incarceration to consecration. They took a deep spiritual inventory of their life, they confessed their sins, and repented. Then he asked our Session for permission to baptize them. A new life began.

Jesus, as a great high priest, is described in Hebrews chapter 7. Through the commission and blessing he received from his Heavenly Father, and his baptism by John, Jesus lived a consecrated life, doing everything for the Kingdom. The writer of Hebrews has this mighty description of Christ:

It was fitting that we should have such a high priest: holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; he did once and for all when he offered himself.
Jesus was consecrated once; for some people, a life-changing decision for Him is the fulcrum of their life. For others, sometimes God has to get their attention a few times in their life. Take for example the story of a man who was in the oil business. His name is Keith Miller. His pride took him out on a limb that was being sawed off. This is part of his story of consecration:
Because of my tremendous self-centeredness and pride, I have always tried desperately to be understood. [I had left the oil company thinking I had a better job, but not so.] The oil company took me back and sent [me] to an office [I’d] been in before. I would rather have gone to most any other place, because this “going back” represented my first great human failure. There was no way I could explain to the people around me what had gone on and was going on inside my soul, behind the confident mask I was showing the world. I began to work because I had a wife whom I loved very much, and two babies I loved deeply. But there seemed to be no hope, no ultimate purpose anymore. If there was a God, the people at the seminary had subtly suggested that I must have turned away from Him…. I suddenly [broke] out into a cold sweat. I thought I might be losing my mind. One day it was so bad that I got in my company car and took off on a field trip alone. As I was driving through the tall pine woods country of West Texas, I suddenly pulled up beside the road and stopped. I remember sitting there in complete despair. … As I sat there I began to weep like a little boy…. I looked up toward the sky. There was nothing I wanted to do with my life. And I said, “God if there’s anything you want in this stinking, soul, take it.” Something came into my life that day which has never left; it was a deep intuitive realization of what God wants from a [person]…. [God] wants your will, and if you give [God] your will, [you’ll be shown] life as you’ve never seen it before. (A Taste of New Wine, Word Books, Waco, 1965, p. 38-39)

Surrendering is not something many people do easily. But the day Keith Miller surrendered to God; and the day some men in our community who were recently incarcerated surrendered to God; and the day a youth leader with a guitar led some youth group members to surrender to God, they became consecrated. They had become kingdom people; not kingdom of this world people, but kingdom of God people. They began to live life differently.

V. Raymond Edmond has compiled a treasure trove of consecration stories in the book They Found the Secret. It is in our church library and includes stories about such people as John Bunyan, Oswald Chambers, Richard C. Halverson, and also Frances Ridley Havergal whose hymn we will sing today. In the book, Edmond traces a pattern in the lives of the people he describes. He says:

Out of discouragement and defeat they have come into victory. Out of weakness and weariness they have been made strong. Out of ineffectiveness and apparent uselessness they have become efficient and enthusiastic. The pattern seems to be self-centeredness, self-effort, and increasing inner dissatisfaction and outer discouragement, a temptation to give up because there is no better way, and then finding the Spirit of God to be their strength, their guide, their confidence, and their companion—in a word, their life. The crisis of the deeper life is the key that unlocks the secret of their transformation. It is the beginning of the exchanged life. [And] what is the exchanged life? Really, it is not some thing; it is some one. It is the indwelling of the Lord Jesus Christ made real and rewarding by the Holy Spirit. [Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1984, p.12]

Today I invite you again to seriously consider getting consecrated to God; to rededicate yourself to glorifying God—not just as you sit in church praying or singing or listening—but as you go forth: sharing, caring, and loving. What a difference there could be in our world if we decided to leave behind the strife, the toxic language, and any self-centered goals, and instead to think about others more, and to show kindness more. Give your will to God, and in so doing, accept the cleansing flood of consecration. With that, the Spirit of the Living God can energize your work, and Christ, the Great High Priest, can a seat in your heart.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 28, 2018


Hebrews 5: 1-10

Ok, in a sermon with this title, I have to begin with one of my favorite jokes that feature a priest:
A minister, a priest, and a rabbi are talking about their own deaths. One of them asks, “When you are in your casket, and friends, family, and congregants are walking by your casket, what would you like to hear them say?”
The minister said, “I’d like to hear them say that I was a wonderful husband, a fine spiritual leader, and a great family man.” The others nodded. The priest said, “ As they are gazing at my body, I would like to hear them say that I was a wonderful teacher and a servant of the Lord who made a big difference in people’s lives.” They nodded. It was the rabbi’s turn. He smiled and said, “When they are looking down at my body, I’d like to hear them say, ‘Look! He’s moving!’”

It was really just since 1517 and the reforms made famous by Martin Luther that Christian theologians who thought like Luther did were disparagingly called the “PROTESTants.” The Protestants started the strange idea that we still embrace called, “The Priesthood of All Believers.” Before that, Roman Catholics and Jews believed in the power—and the necessity—of priests. Yes, Jews had high priests in the first century, and early Christians found the idea of a priest most palatable. A priest, you see, offers sacrifices to God on behalf of others; and a priest also pleads one’s case before the Almighty. A priest literally stands between human beings in the need of forgiveness and the holy God. They are a necessary part of the relationship between Roman Catholics and God, and certainly between first century Jews and God. But do the Protestants—the Presbyterians, the Methodists, the Baptists, the Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the non-denominational churches—need a priest too? Yes. They find their reason in the book of Hebrews; there they find the Risen Christ, sitting first on the right hand of power, is also the Great High Priest. How high? Why, he is a priest after the order of Melchizadek. Whenever people spoke the name of that legendary and mystical priest, they must have said it in an earnest whisper, as if a hush would fall over the room. In the 14th Chapter of Genesis verse 18, Melchizadek was not only the King of Salem, (What was Salem? Why, JeruSALEM of course,) but he was also called the Priest of the Most High God. He brought out bread and wine as a blessing to both Abram and God. He was a true priest: an intermediary between God and people; and between people and God. He attained legendary status over the years. I can imagine, when early Christians were reading this letter aloud to a small house church, that all the ears would perk up as the reader shared verses 5 and 6: “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you; as it says in another place, ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’”

We need such a priest. Certainly the role of priests has been tarnished in recent years over sexual abuse scandals. But sometimes a person needs a priest; or we might call such a person a “confessor.” In the early 90s in this congregation I went to the home of a wonderful couple in our church. She was dying of cancer. As I arrived at the home, I knew death would not be far away for her. I intended to give her final prayers, something that her early Catholic upbringing called “Last Rites” or “Extreme Unction.” The husband said, “She wants to see you privately.” I went into her bedroom and there she was, lying on a hospital bed. She looked exhausted from the ravages of cancer. She motioned for me to come close to her, which I did. With a barely audible voice she said: “I need to confess something to you. I was unfaithful to my husband one time in our marriage.” Tears began to run down her cheeks. Crying, she continued, “I am so, so sorry, but I don’t want to hurt him now. So I needed to tell this to you; I need God to hear what I have said.” “God has heard what you said,” I replied in her ear. “When you are ready, go in peace.” She slipped away later that night. Sometimes we need a priest. For many Protestants, it can be a pastor as I mentioned. It can also be a counselor, or a chaplain: not just chaplains in hospitals or Hospices, but also in the Armed Forces. Oh the stories chaplains could tell without using names about the people who found peace through confession. This is one of the most powerful roles of a priest. But sometimes our priest is another trusted person, as occurred in the cloistered life of a monastery or a convent. Julie Kerr, in her book called Life in the Medieval Cloister, described the power of confession before turning in for the night. She writes, “If monks were going to sleep peacefully and enjoy the restorative night’s sleep [they needed,] it was important that they first confessed their sins and freed their minds of guilt. By doing so, the monks also armed themselves against the devil, who, it was believed, would seek to ensnare them at night when they were at their most vulnerable.” [Continuum, UK, 2009, p. 104.] Is sin a passé term, in our day, one that seems to out of place in our live and let live society? Hardly, as people around the world speculated this week about whether a man was restrained and horribly dismembered while hoping to get papers necessary to marry the woman he loved. Sin and evil are still alive a in our world.

Listen to what layperson Kathleen Norris shared in her book called The Cloister Walk:
My husband and I, raised in the pietistic churches of the 1950s, received an education in sin that was not only inadequate, but harmful. From the Protestants I got a list of rules that were not to be broken and [I] naively thought that as long as I wasn’t breaking the rules, sin was not much of a problem for me. As a young adult, I believed I had no conscience, a state I was fortunate to survive. From the Catholics my husband got less of a sense of sin than a terrific ability to feel guilty about everything under the sun …. [Riverhead Books, NY 1996, pp. 125-126]

Kathleen goes on to say how much she learned from the monks about forgiveness and grace as she participated in the cloistered life for a time.

Here is another role of priests: according to Hebrews 5:7, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The part of that declaration that stands out to me is the last phrase: “He was heard because of his reverent submission.” The way we approach God matters. Prayers cannot effectively be offered in a “matter of fact” way, or in a glib way while we are checking our cell phone. “Reverent submission” apparently matters. Some of you ask me to pray for you, and of course I do. But some believe God hears my prayers better than theirs! Hmmm. When you pray, do you set a time aside from any distraction, go into a quiet place, even a place that feels holy, and then reverently pray? That’s what Jesus did. Some of my most ardent and pleading prayers in my life have happened when I’ve gone into our small chapel—away from foot traffic and phone calls, facing the cross and the table that says, “In remembrance of me;” the chapel that has earth-toned light refracting through stained glass—and then prayed. That’s where I pray best. I use Jesus as my guide for prayer.

We need Jesus; he has many roles in the lives of his followers: Savior; friend; teacher. But today we are remembering an often over-looked role: priest. Like my young grandson Shane would whisper to one of his parents when he broke something or spilled something in our house so they could break the news to Mary Ann or me and perhaps cushion our reaction to the deed, Jesus performs something of the same role for us when we want to approach God with something we have broken or someone we have hurt.

Finally, in the Jerusalem temple of Jesus’ day, a priest was selected to literally “go behind the curtain” of the holy of holies once a year on Yom Kippur, to burn incense and offer a sacrifice to God on behalf of the whole nation. They called the curtain “the veil” of the Temple. Listen how this imagery is transferred to a verse of our next hymn, written by William Chatterton Dix in 1866. “Alleluia! Born of Mary, earth your footstool, heaven your throne. As within the veil you entered, robed in flesh, our great high priest; here on earth both priest and victim, in the Eucharistic feast.” [Alleluia! Sing to Jesus] Those words bring us full circle, assuring us that just as the great priest Melchizadek brought bread and wine as a blessing between God and a faithful man, so Jesus offers the same between God and faithful people today. May Jesus, the great high priest, offer you blessing today, in your own faithfulness, with confessions named and sins forgiven.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 21, 2018

10-07-18 Jesus’ Place in the Cosmos

Jesus’ Place in the Cosmos
Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12

Last week if you were here, you’ll remember that Jesus’ had his disciples telling Jesus that they had witnessed person who were not following Jesus casting out Jesus in his name. Jesus told them, in so many words, ‘So what? Those who are not against us are for us!” This week we get to go from the bottom of the ladder of life—demons and the devil—to the top of the ladder of life. My absolute favorite source of such heavenly information is from the book of Hebrews in the New Testament. But it is a deep dive to discover the gold in this letter! Dr. Tom Long, who taught Homeletics at both Princeton Theological Seminary and Columbia Theological Seminary said this in his commentary on the book:
Among the books of the New Testament, the epistle to the Hebrews stands out as both strange and fascination. Unique in style and content, as a piece of literature it is simply unlike an other of the epistles. Though some of its phrases are among the best known and often quoted passages in the New Testament, some contemporary Christians are largely unacquainted with the book as a whole, finding themselves lost in serpentine passageways and elaborate theological arguments. For those who take the ropes and spikes and torches and descend into the murky cave of Hebrews, there is much we wish we could discover, but our historical lanterns are too dim. [Intrepretation, Hebrews, Louisville, John Knox Press, 1997, p. 1]

Today we will and the rest of this month we will sermonically plumb some of the depths of the Hebrews cave. I once spoke with a woman who claimed that the Bible told her that her husband was the designated coffee maker of the family. “Where did you find that?” her husband asked. “Right here, see?” she said. “He brews!” Today we will go deeper than that!

As we are whisked into Heaven we find a description of Jesus’ place in the world, we read: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being …. He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” [Hebrews 1:3-4] In the early 1990s there was a flurry of interest in “angels.” Dozens of books hit the market including “On the Wings of Angels,” “Know Your Angels,” “Angels Ever Near,” and “Angels: The Mysterious Messengers.” We collected those and 10 more in our church library at that time. Angels, it seemed, were easier to imagine, to appreciate, and to communicate with than God or the Holy Spirit. People began to pray to angels (not something I recommend) and study angels. The Bible does acknowledge angels, not only in today’s passage from Hebrews, but also in Gabriel’s appearance before Zechariah to announce the birth of John the Baptist, in his annunciation to Mary about Jesus, in the comforting visit to Joseph, and the annunciation to the shepherds in Luke. The shepherds received a heavenly host, or “army” of angels in Bethlehem. Gabriel also appears in Daniel 8 and Daniel 9.
And an Archangel, or “chief angel” named Michael, is in Jude verse 9, in Revelation 12, and in Daniel 10 and 12. John Calvin, in his masterful Institutes of the Christian Religion, says: “The angels are the dispensers and administrators of the divine beneficence [kindness and mercy] toward us …” [Book I]

In the last 10 years interest in Saints and Mystics has grown. People yearn to know what ancient followers of Christ taught and how they lived. Many books on those topics hit the shelves again, describing Saints, mystics, and Early Church Fathers. . Some of what the mystics wrote was distinctly unorthodox. In the past few years many people say they are “spiritual” instead of “religious.” But self-taught spirituality can become a vegetable soup of every kind of faith. Does your spiritual soup need a touch of Judaism, a pinch of Buddhism, and a smidge of Eastern Religion in a Christian broth, of Christianity, its hard to know how it will taste! Spirituality on the internet is not always grounded in one faith; it explores what seems holy, or mystical, or wondrous.

The Christian pulpits must keep pointing to the Christian true north to be a compass for the faithful and for the seeker. Today’s passage from Hebrews is the right kind of text that grounds us in the powers of God, the messengers of God, and the people of God. Hebrews is a wonderful book that puts Christ in his rightful place at the right hand of “The Majesty on High” according to Hebrews 1:3. According to verse 1, God is the Creator of the world. This is what we have studied the entire month of September in my Wednesday Bible Study. According to Genesis 1:26, human beings were given the unique ability to choose right from wrong. They were given “dominion” over God’s Earth and God’s creatures, but the better translation is we were given “responsibility” for God’s earth and God’s creatures. Creatures and plants and mountains honor God by being; people honor God by their choices. So at the top of the order is God; there is not a bunch of gods, there is one. But in this time in which we are living, which the writer of Hebrews called “the last days,” “God has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed to be the heir [the inheritor] of all things, and through whom [meaning the Son] God created the world! Here it is! The other confirmation that Christ, the Son was fully present with the Majestic Creator in the beginning! John says it; this writer says it too! So the Son is not just a Johnny-come-lately Jesus born to Mary. Before he became human, he was fully Divine and at the Creation! What a claim! The writer continues to describe the Son in verse 3: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power.” Wow! This is where the early creedal writers grounded some of their beliefs. John Calvin again says: “To sit at the right hand of the Father is no other thing than to govern in the place of the Father, as deputies of princes are wont to do to whom a full power over all things is granted. And the word majesty is added, and also on high, and for this purpose, to intimate that Christ is seated on the supreme throne whence the majesty of God shines forth.” [Calvin’s Commentary, Vol. 22, Baker Books; reprinted in 2005, p. 39.] So friends, the one who is glad to receive our adoration; the one to whom all glory and praise is due, is God, the Majestic! Along side is the Son called Christ, given all the fullness of the Divine. But the blessing we receive through Christ is when he came to earth he experienced our humanness as well, with all our temptations and pains and joys. If anyone can plead our case to the Majestic Judge and Maker of all the earth, it is our Lord Jesus! So we pray in his name, almost like a cc. in an email or a carbon copy in earlier days. We want Jesus to hear our prayers too! After our praise, God can hear our requests, our pains, and our hopes.

The writer of Hebrews continues” “When he [meaning the Son] had made purification for our sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
Like a priest in the Jewish Temple practices, Jesus has to purify [or completely wash clean] the sins of believers before they are presented on the Throne of Grace. It is called “justification,” which simply stated means, “Through Christ, we are presented before God just as if we had not sinned.” That’s what Jesus Christ does for us; no angel, no mystic, no saint has been given that power. Only the Son has it.

Today as we prepare to share this joyful meal with other Christians, we also share their beliefs: The one called “Majesty is supreme; equal power and status has been given to the Son; under the Son, but still Heavenly, are the Arch-angels, and the angels. They praise God and do the work of God, but they are not God. Ad on the earth, humans are God’s crown jewel according to the Bible. Sometimes we don’t act that way, but that’s what God has always thought of us in a “glass half full” kind of way. God thinks no less of his creatures and creation, but they, by their nature, glorify God, not by their choices. God wants people who can choose; to choose life and to choose the one called Majesty, and the one he metaphorically calls “the Son.” So appreciate angels; study mystics, or revere saints. But glorify God through Jesus Christ, and come to prepare for this meal as an invited guest of God! Let us pray: Almighty God: we are preparing our hearts to come humbly into the presence of your holiness one day. Until then, we are honored to break this bread and drink from the cup to connect us with Christ and with Christians around the world. Bless, us we, pray, and the food we will share, in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner October 7, 2018