06-30-19 FOR FREEDOM


Galatians 5: 1; 13-23

The Apostle Paul was not the last one who commented on the idea of freedom.
Other famous people have said the following:
Author Ayn Rand in The Fountainhead wrote: “Freedom: to ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.
President Franklin Roosevelt said, “In the truest, sense, freedom cannot be bestowed, it must be achieved.”
Author William Faulkner wrote: “We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it.”
Philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote “Life without liberty is like a body without spirit.”
And finally, these poignant words from a man who was in prison for years—Nelson Mandela. He wrote: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

This week we think about freedom as we celebrate a time in America known as Independence Day. The colonists were looking to be free from the tyranny of kings and queens in a way similar to Jews wanting freedom from the Caesars in the first century B.C.E. and C.E. What we learn, however, is that just as a disciplined imagination—not a free-wheeling all over the place imagination— helped us bear fruit in the study of the book of Revelation during May, so Christian freedom should not make us feel free to annihilate others or run rough-shod over their rights. Even as far back as the book of Deuteronomy, guiding words have been there for all to consider: The Lord God said: “I call heaven and earth as witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death; blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live ….[30:19] So the gift of life includes remembering how precious it is. And the gift of freedom perhaps should include guidelines from God and from people like the Apostle Paul. American leaders would do well not to stray from principles of responsibility regarding freedom.

Back in 1941, when our nation and Japan were at war in part because Japan didn’t honor the lives and property of Americans as they dropped bombs on the naval fleet in Pearl Harbor, Dr. Reinhold Niebuhr’s Gifford Lectures given at Edinburgh University were published as a large volume, The Nature and Destiny of Man. In it, this Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Seminary in New York wrote profound words that influenced the rest of the 20th century and beyond. Listen to what he said about freedom:
The essence of man is his freedom. Sin is committed in that freedom. Sin can therefore not be attributed to a defect in his essence. It can only be understood as a self-contradiction, made possible by the fact of his freedom, but not following necessarily from it. [Charles Scribner’s and Sons, New York: 1964, p.17

Now let’s examine what the Apostle Paul said about it in his Letter to the Galatians. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit to the yoke of slavery.” [5:1] Those words have doubtless been a rallying cry for colonists and immigrants who escaped the tyranny of slavery and oppression in their own countries. Many came to our shores—most of them your forebears and my forebears—seeking the freedom to establish their own laws and claim a piece of a piece of the world where they could live freely. People were, and still are, hungry for that kind of freedom! But as we learned, freedom comes with responsibility. Dr. Charles Cousar, in his commentary of Galatians, wrote:
The language of slavery and freedom undoubtedly suggests itself to the New Testament writers as an apt description of God’s Word in Christ because of the history of the Jewish people. Israel became a nation by God’s liberation of her from the bondage of Pharaoh and his leading her to a new land…. “Christ has set us free” means that God’s decisive salvation has been accomplished and a complete change of allegiances has been effected.(sic) No longer bound to task-masters like sin, the law, and death, Christians are set in the service of God…” [Interpretation: Galatians; Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982, p.106, 107.]

Cousar goes on to say some activities we usually think of as freedom. He says at a ballot box we are supposed to be free to choose a candidate who we wish to elect. People of faith also choose their religion and what commitments they’ll make to honor its deity. And, he says, it is also good that we are free to choose our partners in marriage and do not have them chosen by our parents (although some parents wish they had chosen the partner for their child!) Freedom can also bring emotional and physical peace, a gift that is appreciated by those who find it. Freedom is a precious gift to be used not only for one’s own peace, but also to assist others in finding peace and justice.

Let’s look exactly at what Paul says: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” [5:13]
Paul then sets up a dichotomy that others have affirmed in their human existence. Even before American psychologist Abraham Maslow diagramed a human being’s Hierarchy of Need—with physiological needs as most important for survival, then safety, then a sense of belonging and love, then the feeling of self-esteem, and finally the most evolved persons reaching a level of self-actualization, showing full potential and creativity. Paul in the Bible described the human lower levels as “carnal.” As he says, “What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit.” [5:16] Those who stay in the flesh—in the lower levels of actualization—do things that are included in this alarming list, refreshingly re-translated by Eugene Peterson in The Message: This is what the flesh desires:
Loveless cheap sex, a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cut-throat competition, all consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

Does that list describe the way we act even today? In some way I think it does!
Part of our problems today are caused by our carnal desires; those of the flesh. When we do that, the results do not honor God.
But there is another list, says Paul. A way to live in freedom and to honor God! It is traditionally called “The Fruit of the Spirit.” People who truly honor God, who truly follow Jesus, can be identified not with their membership card, but with these qualities: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness,
and self control.” [Galatians 5:22]

What a different list that is! If you want to exercise your freedom, you can do so exhibiting the fruit of the Spirit! That’s the way to let freedom ring! That’s the way to let Christ’s light shine! The way of darkness is the way of the flesh; turn away from it and fight those constant temptations!

Commentators have called Paul’s letter to the Galatians the Magna Carta of Christian Liberty. What a perfect week to think about liberty and freedom.
May God shed his grace on our land, and on each one of us.

Jeffrey A. Sumner `June 28, 2019

06-23-19 POWERFUL BIBLE STORIES

POWERFUL BIBLE STORIES
Daniel 6: 1-16; Luke 10: 29-37

What a week, with our daily presentations for Vacation Bible School “To Mars and Beyond!” Our drama team presented five great Bible stories, and then Mary Ann and I had 20 more hours a day with two of our four grandsons. We had an exhausting week.
Let me ask you a question: have any of you of any age attended a Bible School other than ours? I did when I was young; and I did not enjoy it! So when God called me to ministry I declared that we would make Vacation Bible School “The most fun a kid can have in church!” For 32 years here I have been involved and in character to do that. Today I want to take you back to your childhood if you attended church, and remind you of 5 of the great stories of the Bible.

In our Bible Story Station this past week, we turned the handbell room into our staging area for our dramas! Here are the highlights of what we taught:
“Daniel Trusts God in the Lion’s Den” Daniel 6
Our Power Launcher was; “Go beyond with faith!” Let’s say it together!
The story included a King of Babylon named Darius; and a Jewish young man named Daniel, who was taken to Babylon during the Exile of all the Jews from Israel; there he was asked to learn the ways of the Babylonians.
The King learned that Daniel had many gifts, including being able to interpret dreams. Some Babylonians were jealous when the King made Daniel second in command. But Daniel had faith as he faced a lion’s den. He prayed to God to save him. Tell examples of faith; like being blindfolded.
Think of times you have needed to depend of faith to move forward.
Faith is important!

Day 2: Queen Esther Takes a Stand
Our power launcher was “Go beyond with Boldness!” Let’s say it together.
That day our story came from Chapters 4-9 in the book of Esther.
The story was about a Jewish woman, who even when she was named Queen, had no power of her own. They were in the land of Persia and the King was Xerxes. His wife was Queen Vashti, who at one point refused to do anything her husband asked her to do (Yep, completely unreasonable, right men? Lol)‘Anyway because of that, he cast her aside and began a lengthy series of try-outs for the women of his kingdom to come and audition to be his queen! At long last he chose a woman named Esther. Esther was an orphan, raised by her cousin, a royal guard named Mordecai. King Xerxes appointed an evil man named Haman to be his second in command, one who hated Jews and was cruel to them. He particularly loathed Mordecai. When Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, Haman went and squealed to, I mean, told the King. Haman was going to make it very hard on the Jews, even more than usual. Esther had a decision: should she speak up to the King to support her people, possibly alienating herself from her husband? She decided to do so; she acted in boldness to save her people. The King, for her sake, decided to save her people and took power away from Haman in the process. Queen Esther’s boldness saved her people. We talked with the boys and girls about times they acted with boldness, like standing with a friend against a bully, and telling an adult about the situation.
Think about times you might have, or might need to, act with boldness.

Day 3: A Good Samaritan Helps a Fellow Traveler
Our Power Launcher was “Go beyond with kindness!” Say it with me.
We followed the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-37
A man who was an expert in Hebrew religious law challenged Jesus about
Eternal life. “Teacher” he asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” What does the law say?” asked Jesus. The man replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Do that and you will live.” But the man of the law further asked him “Who is my neighbor?”
Then Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and got attacked by robbers.
Priest-explain that Jewish law said he couldn’t lead temple worship if he touched blood or a possibly diseased man.
Levite- like an elder in a church; same reason for not helping as the priest.
Samaritans were loathed and hated by Jews, but Jesus said the Samaritan acted like a neighbor. He was caring, and went above and beyond.
Who are the Samaritans in your life? Other races, other religions, other political parties? Do you ignore or shun or hate them?
Jesus calls them “neighbor.”
Some of the children decided they would be kind to some people to whom they aren’t usually kind: one boy said he would be kind to his brother! I asked, “Aren’t you usually kind?” “No.” he replied. It was a start!
You now know who your neighbor is.
Will you be as kind as even the Samaritan was to the beaten man?

Day 4 Jesus Heals 10 Lepers
Luke 17: 11-19; our Power Launcher was “Go beyond with Thankfulness!” Say it!
We learned that there was a big difference between leopards-big cats with spots- and lepers- people with horrible skin diseases. We also learned it would be nicer to call them people with leprosy instead of “lepers.”
Their skin disease made people afraid to eat with them, come close to them, or touch them. They were quarantine in colonies outside of town. But when they saw Jesus, they wondered if he might heal them like he healed others. To be considered clean, a priest had to examine their skin and pronounce them clean. Jesus told them to show themselves to a priest, implying that their skin would be better almost immediately. Nine left, but one stayed. Why? To thank Jesus for healing him. “Where are the other 9?” Jesus asked. He really knew. In our age and his age, only 1 out of 10 people remember to express thanks in more than a word. Giving thanks takes intention and action. The children wrote thank you notes to people they wanted to thank for things. They were instructed to not just put the note in their backpack, but to hand it or mail it to the person. It is good training and a good practice. Jesus only gave a blessing to the one who expressed thankfulness. Go and do likewise to receive your blessings because of your thankfulness.

Finally, Day 5: Jesus Comforts Friends on the Way to Emmaus; Luke 24: 13-35
Our Power Launcher was “Go Beyond with Hope!” Say it with me.
The boys and girls learned what happened in Jerusalem to Jesus on a cross, and how his body was laid in a tomb (a cave-like place) and after 3 days women came to bring spices and fragrance to honor Jesus’ body in his death, and they found his body gone! He had risen from the dead! Where did he go?
One place we learned he went was to a road outside of Jerusalem that led to the village of Emmaus. He started talking to two disciples who didn’t recognize him.
I told them that happens in grief sometimes, people don’t recognize others through their tears. They finally recognized him in the breaking of the bread- a motion that he made many times when he was with them.
The lesson we learned is that nothing is impossible. They saw their Savior risen from the dead because with God, nothing is impossible.
I told the children that our daughter Jenny teaches her son Marshall, who was at Bible School with us, to never say he can’t do something. Instead he is taught to say, “I need some help.” What a wonderful retraining from our times of saying “I can’t” or “God can’t” do something! If only people in the midst of despair, or feeling hopeless, would find the hopeful of words of asking: “I need some help;” or “with God nothing is impossible” before they do something quite irreversible like taking one’s own life. We taught the boys and girls to have hope, because the disciples didn’t think Jesus could rise from the dead; but he did! Whether they can’t tie a shoe, or work a puzzle, or pass a test, they can say “I need some help,” instead of saying, “I can’t do it.” They learned how to have hope again. And today, you learned how too! A visit with boys and girls can be trying one instance and rewarding the next. We hope the lessons we taught were a blessing for you today.
Jeffrey A. Sumner June 23, 2019

06-16-19 LEARNING FROM LIFE LESSONS

LEARNING FROM LIFE LESSONS
Romans 5: 1-8

A story I heard years ago came across my computer recently. It describes the situation in our Bibles today:
One Sunday morning in a small southern church, the new pastor called on one his longtime deacons to lead the opening prayer. The deacon stepped up front and started his prayer: “Lord, I hate buttermilk.” The pastor opened one eye and wondered where this prayer was going. The deacon continued: “Lord, I hate lard.” Now the pastor was perplexed, wondering if he should step in. But the prayer continued: “And Lord I sure don’t like flour. But mix it together with the lard and the buttermilk, and bake ‘em in the oven, they become biscuits. And Lord, I love biscuits. Help us to realize, Lord, when we can’t see how the ingredients of our lives can possibly come together, that you have a recipe for our lives. You call it a plan, or a purpose, but whatever it is, we need to wait and see what you are making of us. And who knows? Whatever it is , it might be better than biscuits. Amen.”

In other words: we may not like certain passages in the Bible. We may want to skip them. Thomas Jefferson actually took a sharp object, like a pen knife, and cut out bible passages that he found offensive! It is still preserved as the Jeffersonian Bible in the Smithsonian Museum of American History! But like the recipe for biscuits, the message of the Bible needs all of its ingredients! Paul said it this way in his letter to the Romans: “We know that in everything God works for good, with those who love God, and who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8: 28)

Today we are looking at Paul’s masterpiece: the letter he wrote to the Romans. Listen to the way the founder of Presbyterianism, John Calvin, describes this Epistle:
“With regard to the excellency of this Epistle, I know not whether it would be well for me to dwell long on the subject; for I fear, lest through my recommendations falling far short of what they ought to be, I should do nothing but obscure its merits….What can never be sufficiently appreciated—that when anyone gains a knowledge of this epistle—he has an entrance opened to him of the most hidden treasures of Scripture.” [Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol XIX, Baker Books, p.xxix.] John Calvin so respected Paul and his writing in Romans!

Romans is like an adult treatise in Christian theology. To thoroughly cover what we believe as Presbyterian Christians would take more time than we have today. We would need to cover the Ten Commandments and our belief in the Sovereignty of God. We would need to cover Genesis 1 and John 1and remember that Jesus became God in the flesh. We would recall that the Spirit is the Spirit of the Living God, and that the one commonly called the Father is our Creator. We would need to cover John 3:16 to remind ourselves that Jesus died to give us life eternally. And we would look at the church’s creeds, like The Apostles’ Creed, and the Nicene Creed, and masterpiece documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith. When we repeat the Apostles’ Creed today, hear these fresh words of explanation:
We believe in God, called Father, or Creator;
We believe in Jesus, the only Son, our Lord, and in all that the Bible says happened to him, including that he descended into Hell: which meant he felt truly separated and abandoned by his Heavenly Father, not for his own sins, but for ours, and that he really died; it was no act or charade.
We also believe in the Holy Spirit (who the Nicene Creed declares) proceeds from the Father and the Son, and along with them, is worshipped and glorified! (Trinity Sunday reminds us of that.) And yes, we believe in the holy catholic Church, words written long before the Protestant Reformation that simply means the holy universal Church contains many congregations, like Paul said in his letter to the Corinthians: “We are the Body of Christ, and individually members of it.” [1 Corinthians 12:27] “How can we tell the true church?” John Calvin rhetorically asked. He answered: “Where the Word of God is rightly preached, and the sacraments are rightly administered, where virtue is encouraged and where vice is vanquished, there, it is not to be doubted, a Church of Jesus Christ exists.” Finally in the Apostles’ Creed we affirm our belief in the forgiveness of sins, [which is what Jesus did for us by his death], the resurrection of the body (meaning Jesus physically rose from the dead and ascended into Heaven) and that we believe in the life everlasting, meaning we have every hope that we will be in Heaven one day.

With all of that said, if a believer wanted to learn the basic tenets of the Christian faith, Romans contains them. Paul’s letter is a treatise of Christian theology. Roman 8, Romans 12, and today’s text of Romans 5 are all Scriptural gold. Although Romans is bedrock Christianity, some statements might need to be read twice. Today, for example, we read: “Since we are justified by faith ….” What does that mean? It means we have been made right with God through our faith in God, not by our good deeds. One woman in the church helped me learn this forever. She said, “Being justified by God is being presented faultless before God just as if I had not sinned.” That is a wonderful way to remember justification. Christians believe we are presented faultless before God by our faith, not by our good works. Some people think we earn our place in heaven by our good works. Instead, we have faith that we already have a place in God’s heart, because we have faith in God, and our joyful response is with good works!

The second thing Christians believe is that we can obtain peace with God once we are put right with God. Notice our order of worship. We start by acknowledging God as we are called to worship, and as we sing a hymn of praise to God. Then we acknowledge our sinfulness and offer a group confession as a reminder of that. God already knows we sin and is ready to forgive us when we acknowledge it! The Declaration of Forgiveness points the way to restoring the broken relationship with our Creator. Then each Sunday, we pass a word of greeting and peace because we have been forgiven! Continuing in Romans, verse 2 of chapter 5 is tricky wording, saying we boast of (or have the assurance of) the hope that we will one day encounter God’s glory and live in the hereafter. We don’t boast in ourselves, we boast in what Christ has done for us, so others can consider being a Christian too! Verse 3 then says: “We also boast of our troubles, because we know that trouble produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.

No one tests the mettle of my faith like those who have suffering, who are good people, and who are wondering about the presence and purpose of God. They ask “Why is this happening? What is the purpose? Where is God in all this?” In the Old Testament, Job was among those who asked those questions of God. In the New Testament, Jesus himself asked some of them. They had their faith tested, as some of you have today. Paul thinks holding onto hope is important in the midst of our struggles. As Jacob once wrestled with an angel to get a blessing from God, you too may need to wrestle with God, crying out for answers to questions and light for your darkness. Ask! And ask again! The great people of faith certainly wrestled with God, from Mother Teresa to the great Reformer Martin Luther. Even the person down the pew from you may be struggling. Wrestle with God, yes, but don’t move away from God, or write God out of your life! It seems odd to boast in one’s sufferings. Some have put it this way: the devil only meddles with the lives of committed Christians. You may feel tested. Hold fast to God. I have struggled with God too, including a life changing Dark Night of the Soul. Some of you have had even worse troubles and have come through your darkness. Some have been on our prayer list for weeks. And as hard as it is for Christians to handle their troubles, it is infinitely harder for the lost sheep of the world to handle them. Keep yourself anchored to the solid Rock of Christ. For our sakes, he was whipped under orders from Pontius Pilate; for our sakes, he agonized in the Garden of Gethsemane about facing the cross but accepted the will of his Father. For our sakes, Jesus felt forsaken. Last week I invited people to claim the words of the famous hymn “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand.” Declare it today too as we sing it. In the midst of life, be anchored to Christ.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 16, 2019

06-09-19 ACTS: A PROPHESY FULFILLED

Joel 2: 23-28; Acts 1: 1-5; 2: 1-8

There is something that we must admit to ourselves as we read our Bibles: there were many groups—and there still are many groups—that claimed that the Day of the Lord was near; even imminent. John, in Revelation, heard Jesus say, “Behold I am coming soon!” But more than 500 years earlier, the prophet Joel thought the Day of the Lord—that included the judgments of God—was near too! And as I said in May, we have plenty of contemporary authors and preachers who claim the Day of the Lord when Jesus returns is soon too! Even the Apostle Paul thought Jesus would return soon. What we might want to ask the Biblical writers, and Jesus himself, is “What does ‘soon’ mean to you?” Clearly lots of ink, and prayers, and hopes have been spent on this topic. Today we will find some followers of Jesus trying to connect an early 6th century B.C. prophet’s words with an event happening in Jerusalem around 30 A.D.! Let’s take some time to explore the stories of Bible readers trying to connect the dots in the Bible.

Professor Jacob M Myers, who once was a Bible Commentator and Senior Lecturer at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, wrote this about the Old Testament book of Joel:
The central teaching of Joel is that the Day of the Lord is at hand.(3:13-14) or that it is rapidly approaching. The locust plague with its accompaniments is a sure sign that the great and terrible Day is near. [It reminded people of how God acted decisively during the Exodus, making Pharaoh free the Hebrew people.] …For the earlier prophets—Amos and Zephaniah—the day of the Lord was an evil Day, sweeping away everything before it, like the Flood in the days of Noah. For Joel, it was a day of both judgment and salvation. The constant nearness of the Day, as viewed by Joel is also a feature of the New Testament ….The Day is always near, the harvest ripe, the kingdom of heaven at hand. [The Layman’s Bible Commentary, Volume 14, 1959, p. 73-74]
The guidance to “Be ready!” is probably the most pertinent guidance for Christians, “for He will come at an unexpected hour.” Nevertheless, people often have a knee-jerk reaction to incidents that seem supernatural, mysterious, or prophetic. As planes crashed into building after building on 9/11, I heard people cry out that it was the Day of the Lord. It wasn’t. As we have just honored the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the horrific three months of Allied forces finally forcing Hitler’s armies to surrender in France—I wonder if the blood, the bombs, and the combat might have caused some to think it was like the Day of the Lord? D-Day began some decisive and necessary days of reckoning for freedom loving peoples. Another frightful event, concocted by Orson Wells, was his famous radio broadcast “The War of the Worlds” when, in spite of an announcement that it was a play, made people across America think that the earth was being attacked by creatures from outer space! In our day, many of us get understandably unnerved when we hear what sounds like gunshots. On Friday at church I heard what I thought could have been gunshots coming from the kitchen. What I found was our Custodian stepping on bubble wrap with his foot. We are in times of heightened awareness! Imagine all the times before when people thought we were being invaded, or thought Jesus was coming again. Some called those times “Armageddon,” the end of the world as we know it. Today let’s look at something cataclysmic that was good!

The Apostle Peter, on a momentous day in Jerusalem, started his proclamation by quoting Joel. That might seem like a stretch, but it wasn’t. Jew after Jew had learned the Hebrew Bible. They were as infatuated and engrossed by the amazing and terrifying parts of it such as in Daniel, Ezekiel, and Joel, like people in our day quote from terrifying novels and films. Many of us get inspired by our heroes—like pride in our military personal, or in patriots who created our country, or in biblical heroes like Moses, Judges like Deborah, or Apostles like Peter. To inspire others the way Peter quoted Joel, some in our day have quoted the strong words of Julia W. Howe, who wrote them all the way back in 1861: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; he is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He has loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword, His truth is marching on.” Wow. Those words, like the words of Joel, have gotten the attention of people for generations. Joel said [Watch for these things to happen:] “My Spirit will be poured out on all generations. Sons and daughters will start to proclaim the word of the Lord, and will give warnings about the coming of the Lord; old men will begin to hope for a new tomorrow, including a different world for their children; and young men will begin to have clearer visions about the way they’ll fit into the future. When those things happen, says Joel, God is about to do something new in our midst.”

So we come to Pentecost in Acts chapter 2, generally observed in Jerusalem on the 50th day after Passover. It is also known as the “Feast of Weeks” or in Hebrew, “Shavuot.” It was a holy day, but not an extraordinary one; that is, until God’s powerful Spirit broke into the Jerusalem rituals, and an explosion of newness hit the ground! If we start with Acts 1, we are reminded that Jesus ascended into Heaven, and before her departed, he told his followers they should begin to tell others about him, beginning in Jerusalem. When they said they didn’t feel qualified to do that, he said they would be clothed with power from on high. What did Jesus mean? They found out: there on Pentecost, all of a sudden, a mighty wind—perhaps hurricane like—started to blow like never before. Some in hindsight might have called it the “winds of change” but it was more than that. It was the wind of power from on high. When people from different cultures and nations felt anemic on their own, together with others they found strength to proclaimed what they believed God wanted others to hear. Soon people from many nations heard and understood people from other nations! Never had this happened before! In our day we mechanically simulated it as members of the U.N. gather in their large New York conference room and understand each other using dozens of translators. But on Pentecost, the Spirit was the only translator! Peter, who was just getting his confidence back after denying Jesus three times, found his power, as the Spirit gave him voice! He was back, baby, and then some! He claimed the high title of “The Rock” that Jesus bestowed. Then he addressed the crowd. What words did he use to get the attention of the men of Judea? People who have stirred Americans in times of conflict might use the Battle Hymn; Peter, by contrast, recounted the words of Joel! Peter decided that what he had learned from Joel was starting to happen! He added some statements to get everyone’s attention, but basically he quoted Joel. Listen: “In the last days, God declared, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy; your young men will see visions; and your old men dream dreams.” Then Peter threw in scary stuff like blood, fire, smoke, and mist, saying that the sun would turn dark and the moon would become as blood: things a good horror writer would include. Peter got everyone’s attention! That was the cataclysmic day when God took an ordinary holy ritual and made it an extraordinary event! From that point on, people of all nations and cultures have drawn power from God’s Holy Spirit. Sometimes it’s the power to save someone else from danger; sometimes it’s the courage to finally let God speak to others though you. And sometimes it’s when you have a new beginning, or some say get “born again,” and you say to your family, your friends, or anyone within earshot something like the words Edward Mote wrote in 1834, when he declared: “On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand.”

Have you had an Exodus event: a time when God parted the waters for you and delivered you, or showed you the way out of your malaise or oppression? Or have you had a Pentecost event: when an ordinary day became extraordinary, or a time when God broke the mold of a ritual and made it new? What new birth, or new creation, or new idea came out of your momentous event? Perhaps yours is still on the horizon. One thing is for sure: what happened on Pentecost to Peter and to others gave birth to the Christian church, who stopped just following Christ; they started proclaiming Christ as well! Tap back into the fire of that glorious day, each time that you need new strength to face tomorrow.

Let us pray: I invite you to repeat this prayer after me:
” Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.
Melt me,
mold me,
fill me,
use me.
Spirit of the living God,
fall afresh on me.” Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 9, 2019

06-02-19 ACTS: THE POWER OF GOD ON DISPLAY


Acts 16:16-34

In this age when “Avengers: Endgame” has broken attendance and income records at the box office, I am reminded again how creator Stan Lee wanted superheroes who were broken, or flawed, in some way to be the characters in his Marvel Comics. That is the story of the human race: flawed or broken people sometimes able to do extraordinary things. As we open our Bibles instead of our comic books, we find characters in the Old Testament who also broken, or flawed: Jacob, Leah, David, and Solomon to name a few. When we move to the New Testament, we of course, have Jesus, the Son of God without sin. He had the power to heal, to multiply bread, to raise people from the dead, and to make the blind to see. Aside from our Savior, we have 12 flawed Apostles who were granted the power from God to heal, preach, and baptize as Jesus described that they would have. We will celebrate the gifts of the Holy Spirit of next week in Acts chapter 2! But there was another major player in the New Testament: a man named Paul. Originally called Saul, he became an Apostle of Jesus called Paul, and he had the triple powers of Jewish training, Christian teachings, and Roman citizenship. He also had a “thorn in the flesh,” [2 Corinthians 12: 7-9] and people through the ages have guessed at what that was. Paul was proud to say that Christ made him perfect in his weakness. Almost superhero-like in what he did, one source put it this way:
Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus transformed his life. He went from trying to bring an end to Christianity, to traveling roughly 10,000 miles throughout western Asia and parts of Europe to preach about Jesus and Christianity. And he did so at risk to himself, as Christianity was not a legal religion within the Roman Empire at that time. [azbible.com]

On his first journey, he visited 15 towns or cities; on his second missionary journey, he visited 19 towns or cities; on his third missionary journey, he visited a staggering 31 towns or cities; and on his fourth missionary journey he visited 10 towns or cities, ending his journey in Rome where he remained for two years! He was a giant for Christ! He was heckled, beaten, tortured, imprisoned, and eventually he died, according to the story, because he would not stop his missions, nor recant his message that Jesus was the Savior! British author A. N. Wilson, in his book Paul: The Mind of the Apostle, wrote this:
One of Jesus’ followers in Damascus, a certain Ananias, is told in a vision to go to the street called Straight and to lay his hands on Saul. When Ananias [protests] and says that Saul has been a persecutor of the Way, the Lord replies, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name to the Gentiles and kings.” So Ananias did as he was told and he went and laid hands on Saul, …and Saul began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues saying, “He is the Son of God!” … That is how the story of Saul, subsequently known as Paul, was first written down in the Acts of the Apostles. [Paul:The Mind of the Apostle, A.N. Wilson, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997, p. 16]

Today in Acts chapter 16, we visit our hero Paul doing more amazing things! From Asia Minor Paul goes to Troas in Iconium; he is preaching the gospel and praying. He has a famous meeting with a woman of God named Lydia, a seller of purple cloth in the village of Thyatira. God opened her heart to listen to Paul’s message. She was then baptized, and she invited Paul and his friends to come and stay in her home. To this day if you visit Thyatira, everyone has purple cloth for sale! In our passage for today, Paul was then on his way to a place of prayer, when he saw a woman who was employed (owned) by a man who profited from her ability to tell fortunes. Through her divination, she pointed to Paul and the others, declaring to all within earshot: “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation! [16:17] She said this loudly wherever Paul was for several days. That constant proclaiming certainly got on Paul’s nerves and he wanted to save her from bondage. So using the power of God, he cast out her spirit of divination. Out it came, which, of course, meant no one would pay her to use her gift anymore, and her employers lost the goose that was laying the golden egg. When will Paul learn? So they seized Paul and seized Silas and dragged them into the marketplace, accusing them of disturbing the peace, when the woman was truly the one disturbing the peace; Paul just disturbed their income! The crowd joined in attacking the two men, (as crowds often to do), and the attacks escalated. They struck the men with blows and threw them in prison! Can you believe how, with just this minor charge, Paul and Silas were placed in the inner prison, the most secure part, and their feet were put in stocks! Oh what our hero Paul endured for the sake of truth, justice, and the Godly way!

The story continues. Around midnight they were not letting other prisoners sleep because they were singing hymns and praying aloud! Paul! Have you no sense? But Paul had a secret weapon: not x-ray vision; not the ability to fly, not super strength. His secret weapon was his connection with the power of God, who honored Paul’s continuing praise in all circumstances. According to verse 26, there was suddenly an earthquake that was so strong and violent that the doors of the prison broke open and the chains became unfastened! Paul and Silas would have been free to go as soon as they overpowered the jailer. But you should know something: in the Roman Empire in those days, if it was learned that prisoners escaped, Caesar’s law said the responsible jailer would be killed in a horrible way. To avoid that misery and dishonor, the jailer drew his sword and was about to fall on it. But Paul shouted to him, “Do not harm yourself; we are here!” [vs.28] The jailer rushed in and sure enough, they were there! Amazingly, the jailer asked: “What must I do to be saved?”

So let’s regroup. When Paul comes into Thyatira he meets and, God working through him, leads a leader in her home and community—Lydia—to be baptized and saved. Then, as Paul goes toward a place of prayer, he meets a woman possessed by a spirit. He vanquishes the spirit of divination in her, and she became free from the slavery of her occult insights. Then Paul is taken to prison, along with Silas, but God breaks the prison open, and the jailer gets on his knees and asks, “What must I do to be saved?” Not bad for a day’s work! Again, our hero Paul takes insults, beatings, and jailings, and yet he keeps praising God and leading people to Christ! He is truly amazing. And he has 10,000 more miles to go!

Think about the people in your life that you can influence. Who can you free from their prisons of too much drink, too many drugs, or abject poverty? How might a new life give them a new direction? Think about those who, in spite of comfortable income, still finds their lives broken by physical or emotional issues, some of them serious. How can praying to and praising God hit a reset button for them? Through your gifts, we are able to help people get the therapy, clothing, food, and biblical insights that they need. Through your prayers, we are lifting up those who are hospitalized, weak, worn, and needing guidance for their future. Who knows when and how God will respond to your prayers, and my prayers? Today we use Paul’s example as our guide, for continuing our fervent prayers, and our praise.

Let us pray: Holy God, Scripture contains some unbelievable stories of salvation. Sometimes we wonder if those events still happen. Help us to have our hearts and eyes open to see the moving of your powerful Spirit. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner June 2, 2019