01-27-19 HAVING BIG SHOES TO FILL

HAVING BIG SHOES TO FILL
Luke 4: 14-21
A missionary in Zambia wrote these words three years ago:
My blog post today is a little different, but bear with me as I hope it will give you all some insight into who I am as an individual, my faith, and my motivation for service as well as what a great privilege it is to walk this land in service with our partners.
Throughout my time working and serving in Zambia, I have been privileged to visit, live on, and work from many “mission stations”. These mission stations were in the large part set up in the latter part of the 19th century by our missionary forebears. I am always struck by these missionaries’ incredible dedication and sacrifice to God and the communities they served. The attrition rate of these missionaries was huge, close to 100%. Very few ever returned to their homeland and loved ones. In those days you left home with the knowledge, understanding, and expectation that this was going to be a one-way trip.
While the reasons for service may be different, I guess the closest modern day comparison you could make is to NASA’s plan to send a group of volunteers to Mars on a one-way trip. Setting aside the ethical arguments and different theological reasoning attached to this, the circumstances related to the two “journeys” are similar: both involve journeys of great distance in the service of others that have no guarantee of return.
I have always used the stories of these missionaries’ service and sacrifice as a motivational tool. I think that this is a legacy that all those who walked this land in service before us would be proud of. I am not walking in the footsteps of giants but indeed standing on the shoulders of giants. [Ruairdh Waddell, World Renew Blog)
Over the years, there have been preachers with big shoes to fill. Look at the children of Robert Schuller; the children of Billy Graham; the children of Martin Luther King Jr. Look at people who aspire to go into space following in the steps of astronauts Sally Ride or John Glenn or Neil Armstrong. Look at people who want to be athletes, following in the footsteps of basketball star Michael Jordan or tennis star Serena Williams; or in the footsteps of a quarterback Tom Brady or a gymnast like Simone Biles. Countless people have role models, or people they admire, who inspire them. Sometimes they are people in history books or biographies; other times it’s people that they’ve met in person. Having aspirations can lift both a civilization and the human spirit.
Imagine the young man Jesus of Nazareth, the hometown boy, having to step into his new role of listening to Divine guidance. It is likely that he was not uneducated. Expert in Middle Eastern New Testament studies, Dr. Kenneth Bailey, wrote this:
In Jesus’ day, across the villages of Galilee and Judea, there were associations of serious-minded Jews who called themselves the haberim. These associations were composed of men who were employed in secular trades but who spent their spare time debating the law and trying to apply it to the world. A young Jew … had the option of joining such a group. If he decided to do so, he was committed to becoming a “student of the rabbis” and participating in their discussions…. It seems natural to assume that Jesus joined the habirim. [Jacob and the Prodigal, Intervarsity Press, 2003. Pp. 24-25]
Have you ever had an aspiration to enter a field of study, or play an instrument, or join a sport because someone in your family, or someone you admired, was good at it? And were you scrutinized, and perhaps even dismissed as you tried your hand in that work? Then you may know what Jesus faced on that day in his hometown. On the day described in Luke chapter 4, Jesus was handed a passage to read; it was from Isaiah, one of the greatest prophets in the annals of Judaism. There are 66 chapters in the book of Isaiah, but by the providence of God and the selection for Jesus, he read Isaiah 61, words saying that the Spirit of the Lord was upon the great Isaiah, the almost mystical prophet of old, and now this 30 year old Jesus claimed his words as he finished the reading and said to the congregation: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The shoes of Isaiah were too big for Jesus in the sight of the townspeople! They could not buy what he was selling. And—as often happens when an Old Testament passage is included in the New Testament—a few words were dropped or changed. Jesus left out the phrase that he’s been sent to “bind up the brokenhearted.” And he added “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” from Isaiah 58:6.” “The Mishnah (guidance of Jewish practices) stipulates that in any public reading of the Prophets, the reader is permitting some editing.” [Bailey, p.25]
Clearly Jesus was trying to slip himself into very big shoes; the shoes of the great Prophet Isaiah. And the listeners were caught off-guard. They were there to hear a local man read Scripture, not a declaration of God doing a new thing through him. It was a rough time for both the congregation and the speaker. Can you imagine Jesus saying in his nightly prayer: “Father, things aren’t going too well here!” When we start to do a new thing, and not just follow in the paths of the great people who have gone before us, people will resist you. Jesus felt it that day.
After so much time has passed, we in the 21st century may take that scene flat-footed, not getting the radical nature of what was said and claimed. But it was radical. And thus Jesus’ began his impact on our world. And he met resistance. Stepping into a role filled by other competent men or women has always been a challenge. If you recall such times, perhaps we stepping into big shoes or, standing on the shoulders of giants. In golf new golfers stand on the shoulders of Ben Hogan or Arnold Palmer. People in government today may feel like they are standing on the shoulders of Abraham Lincoln or Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Who are the people who have gone before us, carving a niche in our chosen field, or setting the standard for the tasks? Instead of feeling like we can’t measure up, imagine all of those who have gone before you are calling out their encouragement to you! Turn off the voice of the critical mother, or father, or coach. Listen to the great cloud of witnesses, both here and in the hereafter, who are smiling at, and calling out to, you. I wonder if in Jesus’ prayer time, he heard not only encouraging words from his Heavenly Father, but perhaps good words from his insightful mother Mary. And who know? Maybe he heard words from angels or prophets themselves.
Breaking new ground is never easy. Imagine if Steve Jobs or Bill Gates just let IBM keep cornering the market with giant, heavy, slow computers. Imagine where NASA might be now if an insightful manager had not realized the brilliance of three women—Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson—depicted in the wonderful film “Hidden Figures,” and counted on them for their calculations to steer rockets out of harm’s way and back to earth. What a contribution they made. Some just stood in their own shoes, cutting a whole new course across time. They had no prior shoes to fill. Sometimes we need people of courage, skill, and integrity to offer the shoulders on which the next generation can stand.
In addition to great prophets and great judges in the Old Testament, God decided to do a new thing. He did it through Jesus. There was no glass ceiling to break, but there were townspeople to convince. It didn’t go well. Take comfort in knowing things didn’t go well for Jesus. But it was necessary. Sometimes we listen to our heart, where God dwells, and forge ahead. May you listen to God as you choose the path you will take today, and in all of your tomorrows.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 27, 2019

01-20-19 TIMING IS EVERYTHING

TIMING IS EVERYTHING
John 2: 1-11

Dr. David H.C. Read was a minister in Scotland first, before he became the Pastor (now Emeritus) of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He preached from this very pulpit on October 9, 1986. In his book This Grace Given, he told this story:
One wintry day in the late nineteen-forties I was driving in my ramshackle open car from Edinburgh to St. Andrews, where I had an engagement at the university. After crossing the Firth of Forth I was soon in the vicinity of Cupar, the capital of the county of Fife, which happens to be my birthplace. (Happens to be? The cliché slipped out. Does anything just happen to be? Since the point of these reflections is the search for the directing presence of God, I should avoid this expression, which really conceals a popular pagan philosophy of sheer chance, the goddess of Fortune.)…To add to my confusion it was growing dark and so great clouds of mist came rolling in from the North Sea. By the time I was a mile or two beyond Cupar I was totally lost. Peering through and over the windshield, I caught sight of an ancient signpost and pulled over to the side of the road. As I stood for a moment looking around, a curious feeling swept over me. As I far as I could see through the mist, I was stranded on a bleak stretch of moorland, and there was not a sound, not a trace of a human being, not even an animal. Yet I sensed what I could only call a Presence, not exactly spooky but vaguely disturbing. There are quite a few places in Scotland where this seems to happen. In fact someone recently remarked to me that the island of Iona is a “thin” place—where the barrier between the seen and the unseen worlds are stretched thin.
[Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1984, pp. 1,2]

Others have told me that thin places are where heaven seems to connect with earth, or where God’s presence on earth is felt more earnestly. It is a wonderful yet mysterious concept. Some have found such places in their travels and they’ve retraced their steps to feel that divine presence, the wind of the Spirit, or even to hear divine words.
Being in touch with, or in the presence of the divine, is classically what we call “Holy Ground.” When you find it, you’ll want to return.
The start of such an event in Jesus’ life was at the wedding in Cana.

If you have been in a church the last three weeks, you know that Christians first remembered the birth of Jesus, then Jesus going to the Temple as a boy, and last week Jesus being baptized as a man. Perhaps he gradually understood his divine role after living a mortal life for 30 years. Theologians such as Eric Butterworth suggest—I think credibly—that Jesus had a progressive revelation of his divine work in the world. Listen to this description from his book, Discover the Power Within You.
About a hundred generations ago in far-off Palestine, something happened that may well be the greatest event in human history…It happened to a young lad, the son of a simple carpenter. His name was Jesus, the son of Mary and Joseph. This was no ordinary boy ….I can imagine the young boy, Jesus, spending many hours in the hills of Galilee, like any normal youth pondering the wonders of the heavens—the sun and drifting clouds by day, the moon and stars by night. I can visualize Him asking the question posed by the shepherd Psalmist a thousand years before: “What is man?” And then, one day it happened. Into the consciousness of this thoughtful lad came an idea so great that he probably didn’t catch its full implications at first. It was the concept leading to the full realization of His unity with God….We don’t know how this great breakthrough was actually accomplished in Jesus, how long the process took, or when he achieved self-mastery. But we know he made his appearance at the Jordan River to be baptized by John. He was a committed and polished teacher with the amazing message that “the Kingdom of God is within you. [HarperOne, 1992, p. 6-7]

That brings us to this time a few days later, when Jesus and his new disciples were invited to a wedding. Jesus was certainly aware of his divine gifts and was preparing for his ministry. It was a “soon but not yet” time in his life. The clock was about to start ticking for the three years he would have until his death. Calendar time is commonly called chronos; God’s time is known as kairos-officially defined as “a propitious moment for time or action.” It was almost God’s time for Jesus to begin his work according to John 1 and 2. “Some scholars … believe the Fourth Gospel wishe[d] to portray a week of seven days to open his ministry.” [Raymond Brown, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN Doubleday & Company, New York, 1966, p. 105-106] God, in effect, was “ramping up” the revelation of Jesus’ role in the world from John 1: 19 through John 2: 11. First, John the Baptist gave testimony to his own role on Jesus’ behalf; then Jesus was baptized, then he called his disciples, and then they went to the wedding at Cana. It was at the wedding when what might be called a holy hand-off occurred: it was from Jesus’ earthly mother to his Heavenly Father from whom he was about to take instructions. Here’s what John records about that first miracle: It started in John chapter 2: “On the third day.” Sunday is the first day, Monday the second day, and Tuesday is the third—not an unusual wedding day in first century Galilee. There was a situation—either from too many guests or too little wine— in a region where hospitality was famous, and no one wanted to put the host to shame. We hear about a rare time when the older Mary—mother of Jesus—is with her grown Son. He is about to take his ministry reigns: does he know how? Or when? Do any of us know how, or when, a divine awareness may come to us, instructing us to carry out a task or a ministry, or to change a ministry? That day Jesus relented and began to claim his new power. As his mother informed Jesus of the social dilemma (she didn’t ask him to do anything, just informed him of the situation,) Jesus said to her these key words: “My hour has not yet come.” Dr. Gail R. O’Day of the Candler School of Theology observed: “The reference to Jesus’ hour in verse 4 explains why Jesus adopts a posture of disengagement toward his mother. While “hour” is used in the Fourth Gospel to indicate the passing of time, it also is used metaphorically to refer to the time of eschatological fulfillment …. [THE NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press. Nashville, 1995, p. 537.] In other words: the time for which Jesus was born was about to begin. As his mother makes the request, he, for the first time, performs a glorious miracle: not just changing water into wine, but also drawing his followers into the metaphor of a wedding feast. Heaven is like a wedding feast; the Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, and later on, the imagery of Jesus as the groom and the church as his bride will fill many commentaries!

Perhaps your awareness of God’s presence started with a baptism, or your Confirmation; a retreat; an Ordination; or an urging. Some people follow Jesus because they were urged by family members or friends to do so. Others follow Jesus while family members or friends discourage them from doing so. But as many will tell you: when God calls you, you go. Or “when the Master calls,” (as Scottish American preacher Peter Marshall said in his book Mr. Jones, Meet the Master), you go. Last week we sang “Here I am Lord,” and some, I’m sure, sang it as an answer to God’s call. Maybe this too is such a day; a day when you’ll remember the “thin spaces” you visited where you felt the brush of angel’s wings. Maybe this too is a day to join Jesus on his journey, and ultimately for the wedding feast. The journey will include tensions and rejections along the way as you let Divine light shine through your words and your actions. Instead of wondering “What Would Jesus Do?” in the weeks ahead, try asking this instead: “How can I let the light of God shine through my words and my actions?” It we can do that, perhaps we can create even more thin places on the earth, and become aware of our wonderful God who lives in the temple of human hearts.

Hear now this prayer from the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland: “O God, whose blessed Son came into the world to do Thy will: grant that we may ever have the pattern of his holy life before our eyes and so it will be our delight to do thy will and finish thy work; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Jeffrey A. Sumner January 20, 2019

01-06-19 WHAT CAN WE LEARN FROM THE WISEMEN?

Matthew 2: 1-12

Gold; frankincense; and, myrrh; three gifts are ones that so called “wisemen” brought for a newborn baby. On the Internet I saw a cartoon with three women in different colored clothing looking at Mary, Joseph, and the baby. The caption read: “After the three wise men left, the three wiser women arrived bringing diapers, casseroles, and wine.” You decide what were the best gifts! Yes, of course, the wise women’s gifts were much more practical; but history his shown that the wise men’s gifts were more meaningful. Let’s see why. Today I want to connect some dots that occurred to me on Wednesday, and then in yesterday’s News Journal, Pastor Shane Looper confirmed them too. I’ll to those dots in a minute.

Some have said that it’s not the gift that is most important, but what is behind the giving of a gift. If a father gives keys to a car to his oldest teenage son, it is not just a new car, it is a symbol of trust in the son. If a woman gives a family Bible to her daughter who is expecting a child—a Bible that was had belonged to her parents before her—she is not just giving a Bible, she is passing on a tradition and her faith. And if a woman gives hand made and cross stitched dinner napkins and table cloth to a friend, it is not just a nice gift, it’s a sign that she’s giving some thing special to her to some one special to her! Think about why you give gifts, and what others may have been thinking when they gave you a gift. Today I have some gifts that I appreciate more with each passing year. My grandparents gave me my first Timex watch; I have it with me today. It was a loving gift, to help me learn how to tell time when I was six years old. I wonder how many children today can tell time from a clock with hands; an analogue clock? My grandmother gave me an heirloom wooden box with a musical movement inside. She knew I had admired it; it has belonged to her son who died at age 14. I think she wanted her first born grandson to have it. It’s here today too. Gifts best given are not just the first thing picked up dashing through an airport or going in a discount store. Sometimes the gift is emotionally costly or chosen carefully.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we find a sketchy report about men coming quite a distance to see baby Jesus. We don’t even know if there were three men; we only assume that because there were three gifts. And where was the “East” from whence they came? The late Biblical scholar Raymond Brown wrote a 600 page commentary called The Birth of the Messiah on just Luke chapters 1& 2; and Matthew chapters 1 & 2. Yikes! In that commentary he reminds us that the ones we call “wisemen” or “kings” were called magoi in Matthew and we have Anglicized it into the word “magi.” Says Brown, “The magi were Zoroastrian priests….In the Greek form of the Book of Daniel (second century B.C.) the author can describe magoi as flourishing in every corner of the Babylonian kingdom Nebuchanezzar. Along with the enchanters and the astronomers, they were thought to have the power of interpreting dreams and visionary messages.” (Daniel chapters 1, 2, 4, & 5) [Image Books, 1979, p. 167] I hope you heard those words! Did they ring a bell? Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem in those days and took precious vessels from the house of God back to his land of Babylon. That was in the second century B.C.. And among those Jews he took back to his kingdom were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but he changed their names as they became his prisoners in Babylon to Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego! According to the Bible Study Tool website, King Nebuchadnezzar promoted them to the rank of magi. The ruthless King from the land dreamers, visionaries, and astrologers eventually long died, but the tradition continued in Babylon. And where is Babylon compared to Jerusalem and Bethlehem? Due East, 300 miles! So the magi if they came from there—had a long history of reading stars and interpreting dreams. And perhaps the idea of a king to be born in Judah was planted in the minds of the Babylonian magi by none other than Daniel years before! Could it be? Magi read in the stars that a king was to be born when there was a certain confluence of lights in the sky shown in the constellation of Leo symbolized as a lion, when a scepter was prophesied to appear at the feet of Judah. Could it be that these people of both faith and science believed that a king, a special king, was to be born in Judah? And if so, maybe even the treasures taken from the temple centuries before that were never returned, were used to honor God in the Temple? Gold was there—the most precious of metals and most beautiful. Frankincense was there—burned regularly in the Temple. As people smelled the aroma and watched the smoke rise, they believed it was pleasing to God. And Myrrh was there; a fragrant oil used in Jewish practice to anoint the bodies of the dead. The Temple would have had all of those. The magi would have traveled for many, many weeks, not knowing exactly when the newborn king was to be born, but having historical traditions to know his identity! In the giving of those particular gifts-instead of more practical ones—they might have been the actual items stolen from the Jerusalem Temple centuries before by Nebuchadnezzar, or they were similar gifts given to pay rightful homage to a newborn King.

Gifts matter. It is one thing to get something to please the recipient; that’s what we usually do. But sometimes, the gift pleases the giver more, like giving the gifts of historical family stories, or items that have been in a family for generations. This summer, as my mother moved from our house to an independent living facility, we began to consider what to do with all the things my parents had collected. The piano that was bought by her parents for her to play—a piano that was in the house where she grew up—had gotten transported to our house in a moving van in 1966. It had it’s home in our living room all that time. I took piano lessons on it; and my mother played it for special occasions. But there was no space for that piano in my mother’s independent living facility. What would we do with it? She asked her children who would like it. None wanted to move a piano across many states. We thought about selling it, but wondered how much to ask. Then my sister came up with a brilliant idea: my mother’s next door neighbor—the one who had driven my mother to see my dad the day he died—had a daughter who was interested in playing the piano! Well it took no time at all for my brothers and sisters and my mother and I to agree to give the piano to the neighbor! It was so natural! We don’t know if they will love it forever, but my mother could not be happier with the new home of her childhood piano. What we know is that the giver—my mother—is delighted, and perhaps her parents before her would have been delighted with helpful neighbor getting the piano for her daughter to practice playing. Sometimes a gift carries more meaning to the giver than to the oblivious recipient. Could it be these gifts of the magi pointed to Jesus as the greatest gift of all; the gift that God loved to give? Sometimes a gift lovingly given only gets appreciated in hindsight. Who knew that a newborn King would change the world? I know who knew: the magi. And now, you do too.
Jeffrey A. Sumner January 6, 2019

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