Luke 2:41-52

We live in a world where people on both sides of politics have claimed “Fake News” at one point or another. In Christianity, there is a version of what one might call “Fake News.” It is called the Gnostic Gospels. What are those, you ask? They are scrolls discovered near the Upper Egypt town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. They are written in the Coptic language that is native to Egypt. Gnostics were a group of Jewish-Christians mainly in the Second Century. Part of their belief, that Christianity of today debunks, was that the divine spark was “housed” inside our evil human bodies. They believed all matter was evil and all spiritual thoughts were good. Another scroll that has been found is thought to be from the late second Century. Here is part of that “Fake News” scroll, called “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Scholar Bart Ehrman says:
The narrative begins with Jesus as a five-year old boy and relates a number of incidents, most of them miraculous, that betray a streak of the mischievous in Joseph and Mary’s precocious son. Here are anecdotes of Jesus at play with his childhood companions (sometimes harming them with his divine power, sometimes healing them), in confrontation with his elders (usually bettering them), and in school with his teachers (revealing their ignorance) and in the workshop with his father (miraculously correcting his mistakes. [Lost Scriptures, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 57.]

Today’s Luke text carries us over from the Christmas Eve texts when Mary, and the man to whom she was engaged-Joseph, go to great lengths to be together at the time of Jesus’ birth: instead of leaving Mary behind in Nazareth—where her family could certainly have cared for her and may have wanted to tend to her as she gave birth—Joseph took her with him in her condition as he fulfilled the census requirement put out by decree. In fact, if I were her mother and father, I might have insisted that she stay home to give birth in Nazareth. The Daytona Beach News Journal, just this week, ran a series of 8 stories about midwives having babies die due to complicated births. We will never know if it was Mary’s understanding of the angel’s decree that made her agree to go to Bethlehem in her condition or if it was just at the urging of Joseph. The Bible doesn’t say how they got to Bethlehem; the apocryphal (some might call it “fake news”) Infancy Narrative of James claims that Mary started to deliver the child before they arrived in Bethlehem and that Joseph left her in a cave while he ran into Bethlehem for two midwives. But no matter the exact details, the birth of Jesus came at great personal sacrifice on both of the parts of his parents, like a child born today takes sacrifices of time, money, and attention. On the eighth day, according to the law set out in Leviticus 12, Joseph and Mary made all the arrangements to have Jesus circumcised (Luke 2: 21). What followed after 33 days (a law from Leviticus 12) was the trip Mary, Joseph, and Jesus took to Jerusalem for her purification (Luke 2:22). What ordeals children bring into our lives! Nothing done to that point was done because Jesus was the Son of God; it was done just because Mary had a baby boy! What a difference there is between gifts such as a dolls or stuffed animals, compared with a real child!

Children around the world, and certainly those of us near Disney World, know one story of magic when a toy marionette is changed into a real boy! It’s the story of a blue fairy that magically brought a toy maker’s favorite toy to life. The marionette that became a boy was Pinocchio, and he only came to life when he gained the virtues of bravery, loyalty, and honesty, that would be needed in a real life. The toy maker, Gepetto, loved Pinocchio like a son. In another story that we studied during Advent, “The Gift of the Nutcracker,” we also learned that in her dream, Clara saw the inanimate nutcracker become a real king. Stories about people longing to be real are all around us. Isn’t it amazing that we sometimes complain about the cost of humanness: the heartbreak, the body aches, and the disappointments, and yet God wanted to feel humanness, and stories keep describing unreal things becoming real?

In Margery Williams’ tale of THE VELVETEEN RABBIT, the stuffed animal rabbit sat on the nursery floor one day and asked the Skin Horse, who looked old and wise, what it was to be REAL.
“What is real?” the rabbit asked.
“Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become REAL.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes” replied the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are REAL you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” Rabbit asked, “or bit by bit?” “It doesn’t happen all at once,” replied the Skin Horse. … “It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily or have sharp edges or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are REAL most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joins and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are REAL you can’t be ugly. The Boy’s Uncle made me REAL” said the Skin Horse. “That was a great many years ago; but once you are REAL you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.”
[Doubleday, New York, 1991 Reissue, pp. 2-3]
God chose humanness to know the gamut of our emotions; to know what it was like to have skin, and to know both the joy a Zacchaeus conversion, and the sorrow of a Judas betrayal. In Jesus Christ, God chose to become human, with all of its complications. And then, as Jesus grew up, he came to a milestone year: 12. Twelve years old was a special age for a Jewish boy. He had a right of passage from a boy to a young man. But this young man had more than his share of Godly knowledge. So as his parents attended to their religious obligations in Jerusalem, Jesus wandered around the Temple Mount. It was a time to discuss his faith with someone other than his father. This was surely a time when Jesus would not just begin to learn his earthly father’s trade in Nazareth, but also go to his Heavenly Father’s house. His questions of the Temple elders foreshadowed what was to come, even though he would not begin his ministry for another 18 years.

Life’s milestones come and go. As we are on the cusp of a new year, how might you make different decisions? What might you decide to do, that you haven’t done so far? What practices do you deem good to continue? At light speed in the Bible, Jesus goes from infancy, to age 12 to age 30, (disregarding those stories of him as a boy in the Gnostic Gospels.) Life can move very fast for us too! Take time to remember your milestones, to learn from them. What milestones may occur in your life this year? God in Christ stands ready to shine a light unto your path.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 30, 2018


Luke 3: 7-18

When it comes to epitaphs—you know, the sayings some people add to their tombstone—some of them are downright startling. I remember going through the cemetery in Princeton New Jersey while I attended Princeton Seminary. One of the headstones had this startling sentence: “I told you I was sick.” Ouch. Talk about reaching out from the dead! Tim Hawk of the New Jersey Advanced Media wrote this about that cemetery and others:
We live to leave a legacy. In this short life, we hope to have an impact on the lives of those close to us and those we encounter for a fleeting moment. Whether it’s with our family, friends or in the community, our personality will follow us to our grave.
When it’s time to cash in one’s chips, how do you want to be remembered? What would be your epitaph?
“Devoted husband.”
“Gone but not forgotten.”
“Forever in our hearts.”
“Beloved wife.”
What phrase would be your lasting memory?
Gravestones tell a story. More than the deceased’s name, age and date of death, the engravings often give us insight about how they lived or how they died. Some even reveal funny sayings or phrases leaving us wondering what they were like when they walked with the living.
Established in 1757, the Princeton Cemetery is the final resting place of Revolutionary War soldiers, scientists, musicians, writers and Pulitzer Prize winners. Grover Cleveland, the 24th president of the United States, and Aaron Burr, the third vice president are also buried there. But among the breath-taking monuments and picturesque views lies, [are words] etched forever in stone. Here are three:
“I told you I was sick.” “Life is short, eat dessert first.”
“She was not afraid of bears.
That cemetery is worth a visit!

In truth, many people in our day do not choose big headstones with memorable epitaphs. So for us, we may not want to consider what is etched in stone on our behalf, but what is indelibly placed in people’s minds. How might you like to be remembered? What good deeds for your community, your church, your family or your nation might be remembered about you with gratitude? The fiery prophet John the Baptist proclaimed to those who came to be baptized by him: “Bear fruit.” “Bear fruit worthy of your repentance.” In other words, do the works to show others the change that is in your heart. Or, “Let there be evidence that you are wanting to make a difference in this world.” Words are cheap; actions matter. As I learned from a man with citrus trees in his yard, the purpose of the trees was to bear fruit. Fruit trees are not grown to be shade trees or just for beauty; they are grown to bear fruit. That is their purpose.

Pastor Rick Warren created a publishing bonanza with his 2002 book The Purpose Driven Life. Its subtitle: “What on Earth am I Hear for?” The Westminster Shorter Catechism gives as some good guidance with its words “Our chief end is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” I once had an elder ask me, “What are your goals in life?” And I said, “To be the best husband, the best father, and the best pastor I can be.” He said, “You’re already doing those, you need some new goals!” What are your goals in life? One of them, says John, is to “bear fruit.” In God’s eyes, you are a blessing not just by being; but once we know that, a major purpose in life becomes “bearing fruit.” Even a blessed person can wear on one’s nerves if they never get out of bed or off the couch! Will you be able to say, at the end of your life, that you made your community, or family, or church, or friends a little better because of who you were and what you did? As Mary Ann and I guided our children to this stage in their lives, we fulfilled some of our hopes: 1) That they would find good employment; 2) find a wonderful person with whom to share their life; and 3) and that they would contribute to society in ways that are meaningful to them. Instead of just coasting through life at whatever age, think about your legacy; think about “Bearing fruit.”

As one starts to read the Gospel of Luke, they can get lulled into “sleeping in heavenly peace” angels appear; babies are born, weary parents make their journey to Bethlehem; and shepherd go to see the Christ Child. Then in comes “Wreck it Ralph,” only this time it’s “Wreck it John.” John the Baptist, who seems like a prophetic bull in a china shop, thunders a warning from God: “God” he says in so many words,” is not pleased with the levels of sin without acknowledgment or repentance, so there could be estrangement ahead! Those who keep on their path will be cut off from blessings; cut off from encouragement; cut off from the one who gave them life. They cannot claim to be ‘chosen people’ as if their genealogy earns them favor. Instead of having the habits of highly successful people, they have developed the habits of highly sinful people, and it has doomed their relationship with God.” John tells them what they—and we—need to do. If he were to boil down his response: , it would be “Live Differently! Share instead of hold; earn instead of cheat; repent instead of deny!” Today, John steps out of the pages of Luke and preaches to us and to others: That message could be delivered to our national leaders who may badly need to change: to local leaders who have recently shown unyielding stances against others; and to state leaders. Maybe you need to hear John too, or a family member needs to hear John. I know there are days when I need to repent. Making a rugged self-examination is not just a Twelve-step activity; it is an activity of Godly people. When I am on certain roads, warning strips strategically placed at the sides of the pavement rumble through my car, telling me I’m going off the road. John the Baptist is our rumble strip, warning us that we might be off the road. Some arrogantly answer John, “Leave me alone! I’m saved!” Or “I’ve already been baptized!” To that John says, “Act like it! Live Differently! Bear good fruit!”

So today: what might you need to change in your life? What relationship needs attention? Are you emulating good role models in your life, or poor ones? The political climate is so toxic in our nation and in other nations as we move toward Christmas. Who gets your respect for truth, for integrity, and for Christian actions? Which ones do you follow; which ones do you reject? In addition to Jesus, pick high quality people and see how they deal with issues and conflicts. Notice their work or their generosity. Choose the qualities that you want to exemplify, and take any bushel off the light you can begin to shine in the darkness. God is watching. God’s eyes flash at the sound of lies. May each of us work on our relationship with God Almighty, rather than facing the ax. Let us pray:

Almighty God: as troubled as we are with our nation and the world, we know that you judge us one by one. Help us to be a prophetic mouthpiece in written and spoken ways when needed, and a bridge over troubled waters where we can. Remind us that the reasons for our names to be included in the book of life are still unfolding. We will seek to bear good fruit in the garden of your world. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 16, 2018

12-09-18 PREPARING

Luke 3: 1-6

Matt Raule, the author of our “Gift of the Nutcracker” series we offer on Wednesday nights, noted the human tendency to put off until tomorrow what doesn’t need to be done today. He says tongue in cheek, “If we knew that Christ was returning on Tuesday, our sanctuaries wouldn’t be full until Monday.” He then goes on to say: “It’s like the afternoon that someone came into my office asking me if I thought the recent solar eclipse was a sign of Christ’s return. I asked him what he might do if it was a sign. He said that he would return to church to ‘get right’ with the Lord. I asked him what he might do if the eclipse wasn’t a sign of Christ’s return. He replied with ‘I guess I’d keep looking.’ I invited him to start looking with us in church.[Abingdon Press, 2018, p. 50.] Lots of people talk about what they call “the hereafter.” One woman quipped, “I talk about hereafter all the time! I walk into a room and say to myself, ‘Now what am I here after?’” We in Christianity are always looking for the return of Christ; not as an obsession, but as I said last week, “by watching, and not just waiting. This week we add “preparing” to the plan of “watching.” It is a fool who comes to God to get right just as the celestial railroad is pulling in to your station, or just as you see him descending from the clouds. People time die in their sleep. But are they prepared for that to happen? Just this week I learned of another person who died in her sleep.

Instead, many good teachers know the five “P’s- Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” What a providential blessing it was to have President George Herbert Walker Bush’s funeral on television for all to see this past week. What planning it took to arrange for the speakers, the spaces, and the transportation! But that President planned beautifully well in advance of his last breath. Presidential biographer Jon Meacham was asked to speak when the time came, and he actually shared his words with the aging president ahead of time to get his approval. After hearing him read it, President Bush turned to Meachem and said in a self-deprecating fashion, “That’s a lot about me, Jon.” But it was part of the preparation for the day. Arranging for Air Force One to become Special Air Mission 41 to honor the late President. And to get the train delivering the body to its final resting place to his library in College Station to be painted in Air Force One in light blue colors with the side reading “George Bush” along with the number 4141 took time to prepare. He even selected the menu of foods that would be served to his family and friends on that train! This week was a textbook case of how things can go if one prepares well.

As we head to the Christmas holiday some here will have guests coming into your home, and some may be the guest in someone else’s home. When that happens, the host begins to get ready: to dust, to straighten, to see that sheets are clean and food is in. Some bake cookies or pies so ingredients are bought ahead of time. I remember one time Mary Ann was missing an ingredient for Christmas dinner, and the only place I could find open on Christmas Day was 7-11! We’ve now pulled our Christmas books and decorations out because we will see four grandsons and their parents Christmas week. Meanwhile we are buying gifts, not just the many adult gifts we gladly bought at our Christmas Market last week, but gifts for the little ones too. The stories of life include times of preparing: preparing for a baby, preparing for death, preparing to welcome Jesus, preparing to take tests. The Boy Scout motto “Be Prepared” is good advice in any situation. An old axiom puts it this way: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

The Advent season is the time to prepare for the coming of Christ into our world. I told our Wednesday class that we push a reset button each year in Advent, almost like other churches have yearly revivals. It is our time to reset; to consider our life; to consider our Lord, and to consider the connections we have with others. Like in the children’s plays when the innkeeper cries: “No room!” to kids dressed like Mary and Joseph, the world seems to have a “No Vacancy” sign for Jesus too. Only in the hearts of Christians does he find a place to, as the carol tells us, “to lay “down his sweet head.” His first bed was a manger perhaps filled with hay with swaddling clothes added. His next bed is in our hearts. John the Baptist drew his message from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord!! Make straight his paths!” It has been the prophet’s warning for generations. Prophets have neither a crystal ball nor a Ouija Board to predict the future. They listen to God—as we could do—and they watch the world and stars and the sun—as we could do—and they connect dots—as we could do. It is not easy. The paths cows and other animals make are crooked. To get ready for a King, the paths need to be straightened! Good preparations make for a wonderful welcome for a King! In addition, road crews make interstates roads through very hilly or rocky places by leveling off the hills with machines that my Construction son-law-Brian teaches to his 3 year old son Marshall: they are road graders and excavators. They smooth out the hills. We need that preparation to welcome our King; how good it is if he arrives after the work is done instead of before we gat around to the work. The work includes praying, but John the Baptist also insisted on repenting—which is making amends with God and others you might have ignored or hurt—and opening our eyes to see places where we can make a difference, and then engaging our bodies, minds, and souls to do so.

In the 1930s, at the depth of the depression, a play called “Green Pastures” by Marc Connelly was setting a new record on Broadway. It ran for 1,653 performances and continued until it leading actor, seventy-year-old Richard Berry Henderson, collapsed and died. The play depicted God and the angel Gabriel in heaven, peering down at the earth. It was an enlightening interpretation of God’s care and concern for a world in which he allows the freedom of choice, yet he is despairing over the terrible consequences of the people’s choices. God watched over his world and tried to prepare his children to meet the demands of life on earth. After God sent Moses and prophets to the world, he then sent his Son, who shared the sufferings and heartaches of being mortal. Over and over, Gabriel wanted to blow his trumpet and bring an end to all the bad choices and evil deeds going on in the world. “Now Lawd?” he asked, “Now can I blow the trumpet?” The trumpet would mean the end of the world as we know it. But God held out in patience, hoping that people would finally learn the consequences of their choices. “Everything nailed down is comin’ a-loose!” Gabriel told God as he watched chaos and confusions amongst the peoples of the world. Still, as the play goes, God wouldn’t give up, but kept preparing his people for a day when they would welcome him. The time to get ready for God is now; not tomorrow! Even though he comes as a helpless infant at Christmas, he can come with either warning or welcome as he appears in the clouds!
“Get ready!” the prophets said. “The Lord is coming soon.”
Jeffrey A. Sumner December 9, 2018

12-02-18 WATCHING

Luke 21: 25-36

On most normal paper calendars, we have just started the last month of the year, and after December 31 the calendar ends. It has no more months on it. Actual calendar stores pop up seasonally just to sell us new calendars. The signs are around us that a year is coming to an end. For example: last Thursday was the final Counseling Center Board meeting of the year; a new slate of officers and a smaller Board starts in January. By contrast, last Sunday was the end of the Christian year; Christ the King Sunday reminded us of the power and the glory of Jesus Christ: the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. Today starts a new Christian year. Once again we go back into the “Once upon a time” sections of the Old Testament. As “it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go,” once again we hear the words of prophets from Christian pulpits: sometimes they are mystical or mysterious; sometimes they are thunderous, reminding people to “prepare the way of the Lord!” We start to hear from the main New Testament prophet known as John The Baptist and his demanding message: “Repent!” We also hear from Major Prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah— called “major” because we have more of their words in our Bibles; and we hear just as powerfully from Minor Prophets like Micah and Malachi—only called minor because we have fewer of their words in our Bibles. If we listen to their words through our 21st century ears, we might, just might, get good guidance for our own lives and get good direction for our own world, not just for the pre-Christian world to which it was first addressed. I invite you to listen and learn during the coming Sundays known as Advent. Synonyms for advent are these: arrival; appearance, or emergence. Christians have been around this block before; we know the words of the prophets; we know what a rude and bare manger scene is at the end of our December journey. Do you look at this time of the year with anticipation; or with dread; with joy or with hope? Some children weave together their love of Santa and a love for Jesus. I think that’s fine. Some youth are very active in this season, hardly getting to think about Jesus in their lives. They are busy with parades (like today) or final class projects, and some are just excited about their upcoming holidays with no school! Young adults and young families may be heavily engaged in community projects, in preparing for concerts, or in getting their home ready for guests. Other adults may have a hole in their soul because of a loss, so they may have, as it has been called, a “Blue Christmas.” Some may enjoy caroling while others enjoy watching Christmas specials on television. Still others attend local concerts and services (especially ours!) These Advent days have many emotions rolled into them.

Theologian Karl Rahner once said this prayer: “Every year we celebrate the Holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and those lovely songs of hope and promise. Every year we roll up all our needs and yearnings and faithful expectation into one word: ‘Come.’ And yet, what a strange prayer that is! After all, you have already come and pitched your tent among us.” [Watch For the Light, Plough Publishing, 2001, p. 68.] Each year we continue traditions that hold our knowledge in suspension, so that we can pretend that Christ has not yet come to the earth, so that we can re-member the old, old story. One blessing of being a pastor of a congregation as long as I have is that I remember; I remember the people; the events; the special days, including the joys and the sorrows of the seasons. On our church anniversary in May we pull out the films and photo albums, we eat cake, and tell stories again. It’s what we do to pass on the traditions and customs! Some among us wisely remind us to write these things down. So for our 60th anniversary three years ago, I bought our church history booklet up to date. Every December my activities fill me with memories too: with each ornament I pull out, my mind fills with who gave it to us or where we bought it. With stockings that are pulled from storage I think about each family member. And in holiday gatherings I get more connected with family and friends than even Facebook allows. But today, let me suggest something specific Jesus told us to do.

First, this lead in: American poet Robert Frost said, in his poem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening:” “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” He did not write these words that I recently saw on a T-shirt: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one on the left because the one on the right was muddy and I had nice shoes on.” Those were not Robert Frost’s words! But today, I think the road more often taken in Advent is the first road; the road of “Waiting.” After all when someone is expecting a baby, (like Mary was,) for the most part all she and other family members can do is wait. Yes she can prepare a nursery, or get good pre-natal care in our day, but others must wait. When Mary Ann and I were expecting our first son, she and I were not only waiting nine months, but Christopher was not ready to be born until over 3 weeks later! That was a lot of waiting! Waiting is often passive; people wait to see a doctor; people wait for their flight to be called; people wait for a baby to be born. They look for ways to pass the time like playing on their phone or listening to music. They are just waiting!

The road taken less often—we’ll call it the second road—is “Watching.” It is active. After Jesus gave a list of things to notice in the world—changes in the sun, moon, stars, and the sea—Jesus said this in our text today, Luke 21:36: “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” Watching is active. A man recently told me what a gift his grandfather gave him: he taught him to watch, to notice things and people around him wherever he was. And so he does; this gown man notices birds in the trees, or animals that trudge a lawn or a path. He notices the sky and the expressions of people around him. He is always “watching.” Our translation of the passage today says to “be alert.” J.B. Phillips, the famous translator of the New Testament into modern day English, wrote this: “The [man] who works on scaffolds hundreds of feet above the ground has to be on his guard against over-familiarity. The [one] who works with high-voltage electricity must also beware of … danger. And anyone who knows the sea will say to you in effect, ‘By all means love the sea, but never lose your respect for it.’” [Watch For the Light, Plough Publishing, 2001, p. 20, 21.] Watching is being alert; seeing what is around you; being prepared for both the challenges and blessings that will come your way.

This year, Jesus invites us not just to wait for a baby to be born, but to watch, to be alert, and notice the signs that are around us. Who knows when we might see Jesus in another person? Who knows when we might see an opportunity to bring peace from conflict? And who knows what we might see that could totally change our Christmas? Keep watching.

Jeffrey A. Sumner December 2, 2018