Author Archives: Westminster by the Sea

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Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian Church, Daytona Beach, FL 32118

11-12-17 A WEDDING STORY

A WEDDING STORY

Matthew 25: 1-13

 

So many wedding customs have changed or been altered or neutralized over time that yesterday’s traditions don’t always apply to today’s weddings. Sure some brides still plan to carry “something old, something new, something borrowed, or something blue” to their wedding, but original meanings of dress colors and of bridal veils have largely been discarded. Jesus, in his day, new exactly how Jewish weddings were carried out and we’ll hear about those in a minute. But just as an example, listen to what was written in the book called The Amish Wedding by Stephen Scott in the section called “The Wedding Season:”

Farm work, religious beliefs, logistics, and tradition all play a role in limiting wedding dates for the Lancaster Amish. It is inconvenient to hold weddings before the last of the harvest work is completed. After Christmas, severe weather can make travel difficult. A full day is needed to prepare for a wedding, and making these arrangements on a Sunday would be considered sacrilegious. That leaves out Monday. Many weddings are held on a Tuesday; but Wednesday is out because people in a Tuesday wedding would be cleaning up from the previous day and those preparing for a Wednesday wedding could not attend on Tuesday. Thursday is a good day, but a wedding could not be held on a Saturday because there could be no clean up on Sunday. As for Friday, weddings simply have never been held on that day.  [Good Books, PA, p. 9]

 

Isn’t it interesting how customs change and have gotten started! For example, it is also said that the custom of using a string of XXXXs for kisses when ending a letter came from one of three understandings:

  • From universal illiteracy, in that many people who could not read or write signed their name with an “X.”
  • From the sign of St. Andrew, St. Peter’s brother, and the patron saint of Scotland, who is said to have been crucified on an X shaped cross. A kiss with an X was thus a pledge in the name of St. Andrew.
  • The X is the Greek letter Chi, the first letter in the name of Christ the Lord. (That research was discovered by author Tad Taluja and recorded in his book, Curious Customs. Harmony Books, New York, 40)

So friends, I tell you today that Christians over the centuries, who have longed for the return of their Lord, would cry out “Here Comes the Bridegroom, not “here comes the bride!” And “here comes the bride,” is a song title falsely attached to the Bridal Chorus from Wagner’s “Lohengrin.”  As my Princeton preaching professor explained in his book: That march “was never intended for use in a religious ceremony. The so-called Bridal Chorus, from Wagner’s Lohengrin … occurs in the opera after the wedding in an atmosphere of distrust and hatred that ended in death and separation.” The groom dies and the bride weeps, all to the chorus with the ironic words, “faithful and true.”  [Presbyterian Worship, 1980, John Knox Press. P. 85]

 

Customs have been distorted from their original intended use in many areas of life.  So, then, it should not surprise us that the Jewish wedding guests of Jesus’ day would likely not have cried out “Here comes the bride!” but rather, “Here comes the groom!”  Well before a wedding, the father of the groom would speak to the father of the young woman whom the groom’s father had chosen for his son. The two fathers would negotiate the bride price, which the father of the groom would pay to the father of the bride for the privilege of having his daughter’s hand for his son. It would be a high price. The bride would them go about selecting her bridesmaids and preparing to wait; and to wait; and to wait. They would need to be ready, and there would need to be enough oil for their lamps so as not to disappoint the groom and his entourage on his return.  When would they return? Who knew? They had to wait while the prospective groom and his father talked to him about his readiness to be a husband, a provider, and perhaps later, a father. The father of the groom trained his son in the ways of marriage while they worked together to build a room on the father’s house where the new couple would live. Only when the father decided his son was ready would he release him to return and get his bride, day or night!  If the bridesmaids were not prepared to go at that time, they would be left behind! So the parable is not about waiting like statues with lamps burning for his return; it’s about wise planning and being alert and ready for his arrival so oil supplies were there and at least one lamp was left burning to light the lamps of the others.

 

Why all this talk about weddings? Because Jesus’ parable seems like that’s what it’s about, but it’s about more. You’ve heard of the church being called “the bride of Christ” before?  Last week, for example, we sang “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord; She is his new creation by water and the word. From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride.” Did you hear it? The church—the company of the faithful—has traditionally been referred to as “The Bride of Christ” so that a parable like this will describe more than wedding customs. It describes how the groom—Jesus—will return for his bride—the church—at a time unknown by anyone except his Father. And when he returns, he will take his bride to the room he and his father prepared on the father’s house. It’s described in John 14. The father will have paid the bride price, and we will live with Jesus in heaven.

 

So, when will Jesus come again? Paul attempted to comfort the Thessalonians about meeting the Lord in the air, but that was said to a group of people who wondered what would happen to their dead and buried relatives if they died before the time of Jesus’ resurrection. The parable Jesus told us gives us better insights about “the Day.” (The Day of the Lord.) I’ve been getting another wave of literature in my mailbox and on my desk sent by well-meaning people, telling me that their careful and scholarly unpacking of Scripture has revealed the time Christ will come again, and it  is soon! But here’s the point; they don’t know. You don’t know; I don’t know; only the Father knows when his son will return! But is it a warning, or a reminder, to be ready because Jesus will return at an unexpected hour? Yes. And we should heed that news carefully. Until then, we prepare our lamps and keep them at the ready by:

  • Reading God’s Word and being in constant prayer;
  • Spreading the word that Jesus came to earth and he will come again to judge both the living (the quick) and the dead, according to the Nicene Creed and according to 2 Timothy 4:1.
  • Confessing Jesus as Lord and finding the peace of God that passes all understanding.

So how long will you live? How long will I live? God only knows! We are urged to live each day as if we can see the light of Christ returning for us! When that happens, the faithful and true Church—the bride of Christ—longs to hear the voice of an angel, calling down to us from the Holy City, exclaiming, “Here comes the groom!”

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 November 12, 2017

11-05-17 EXAMPLES OF HUMBLENESS

EXAMPLES OF HUMBLENESS

Philippians 2; Matthew 23: 1-12

 

One of my colleagues in Port Orange is the Rev. Jeff Summers. Really! He is the Pastor of the New Hope Baptist Church. I like him and have enjoyed his stories. If you can believe it, while I was working on my doctor’s degree at Columbia Seminary in Decatur, Georgia, he was working on his degree there too! So the directory listed Jeffrey Sumner from Port Orange Florida and Jeffrey Summers from Port Orange Florida! One time I asked him what church he served before coming here. He paused for a minute, and then said:

“Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains Georgia.” “Oh do you mean ….” I started to ask. And he interrupted and said, “President Carter’s Church.” He went on to tell me that Plains is a town of about 700 people, and the church has a membership of less than 200. But when Jimmy Carter is in town, he teaches Sunday School! This happens many Sundays of the year and there may be more that 400 people in attendance! Jeff said the former president is just as devoted to Jesus and to the Bible as you might have heard, and he is one of the most humble men he had ever met. He builds Habitat for Humanity homes and shakes the hands of the new residents, the same hands that have shaken hands with Vladimir Putin, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama. He has the hands of a carpenter; the hands of a good neighbor, the hands of a disciple. And at age 93 he still builds, teaches, and travels.

 

Who do you know who has those traits of humbleness? I know that Jesus, in Matthew 23, was talking especially to scribes and Pharisees, but I’d image he had to teach that trait to his apostles too! They were from different walks of life and could certainly have gotten impatient with government and taxes and waiting as we do! Getting 12 men to be humble and not compete with one another can be quite a task! In fact even after Peter, James, and John came down the mountain where Jesus was transfigured before them in Luke 9:46, “an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.” Then, if you can believe it, immediately after Jesus gathered his apostles for the Last Supper, “A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” {Luke 22:24] Come on men! Do Jesus’ teachings not sink in?  Who among us, even today, continue to push to be first in line for food, or for recognition, or in traffic? Even the 12 had trouble assimilating this teaching.

 

Have you thought of a person who is a good description of humbleness? Maybe he or she is one of your balcony persons, that is, ones who have gone before us; one of the saints who is joining us for this communion today?  The one that comes to mind for me was my grandfather. He and his three brothers owned a men’s clothing store. They were equal partners, but when the man who tailored the new suits for their customers died, they searched for a new tailor and found no one. My grandfather said he had watched the tailor do his work, so he would learn the skill. While his other brothers were in front selling clothes, he learned the art and skill of tailoring. He would sit at the back of the store, in the corner between shelves of shoeboxes, at a heavy table with a built in old, heavy duty Singer sewing machine. The tools of this white collar business partner became scissors, different colors of thread, a thimble, a hot dry iron, and a bowl with water where a roll of cloth he sewed together could be dipped in to dampen the fabric and make the iron crease pants nicely. I spent hours back there with him; and we would talk. He was his church choir director for decades, a Shriner, and 33rd Degree Mason, but he never talked about what he was doing. He just did it; and he gave generously to his church and to many charities. He died at 99 years and 10 months. I think of him as we celebrate those who are in their nineties today! What a man; what a friend to others; and what a follower of Jesus.

 

The apostle Paul had his life changed by Jesus when he appeared to Paul, then Saul, in a vision; after that, Paul so admired Jesus. One of the qualities that he most admired, and most promoted, was his humility; his humbleness. He wrote a piece of poetry that some think could even have been a first century hymn. He wrote it to inspire a group of new Christians and others deciding whether or not to follow Jesus. First he wrote: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves.” Then he wrote:

Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:

who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he  humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.   (Philippians 2: 3-8)

 

Of all the leaders in the world, or in your school, or in your Google searches, or in your books, this is the one we will want to emulate. He was born into humble, even rude surroundings according to Luke 2:16, where a feeding trough for animals—a manger—was his baby bed. And his mother Mary showed such humility when she, perhaps overwhelmed with the news from an angel, said “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; let it be according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38) We will find out why we will want to have those qualities when we gather at the river in heaven that flows by the throne of God; when we gather with the saints by the river; saints who didn’t get there by pushing or shoving or blowing their own trumpet, but ones who got there by choosing Jesus as their Savior, and thereby finding the grace of God. This is the Lord who invites us to dine with him today; and when we do, we may get a foretaste of being with him in glory.

 

Let’s look at one final biblical example; of the choice God made for Moses over his brother Aaron or his sister Miriam. He seemed to be free of arrogance and God knew his heart. This is what the Bible says about Moses and his humility:  With every instance according to Numbers 26 and 27, Moses took each case of justice before the Lord, finding the answer, and giving out the decision. After leading the people for 40 years, he still relied on God! From the beginning went Moses humbly and rather reluctantly accepted God’s call to deliver his people from slavery—a Herculean task. He said to God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the people of Israel out of Egypt?” Who indeed; the man of God’s own choosing; Moses; and the man of God’s own choosing: Jesus; and perhaps preachers over the years, and church members, or people on the streets serving meals, building Habitat homes, or helping men or women turn their lives around.  Are there things you can change in your life to live more like that? As Jesus said: “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. And those who humble themselves will be exalted.” There could be a place for you, by the river … that flows by the throne of God.”

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          November 5, 2017

10-29-17 SOLI DEO GLORIA: TO GOD BE THE GLORY

SOLI DEO GLORIA: TO GOD BE THE GLORY

Romans 11: 33-36

 

My grandmother used to sell World Book Encyclopedias. Our family owned a set when I was growing up, and as a young family in the 1980s, Mary Ann and I bought a set. Along with my Merriam-Webster Dictionary that I got as a high school graduation gift, and a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, I had all the general reference books I needed! Can you imagine? My search engines were my fingers, flipping through the pages and my eyes scanning the line!  Research took lots of time and searching. Ten years ago I sadly got rid of our set of world books. There were new kids in town: their names were Google, and Yahoo, and other funny names. They are our new search engines. I even had to use Google to double-check how to spell Merriam-Webster! We are in an age when information can get encapsulated and digested quickly. In some ways, it’s a wonderful time in which to live.

 

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were new kinds of churches that looked different from the church in Rome with which they had distinct objections. These people who only sought to reform the church, ended up starting new branches of the church universal. The people who resented their work and their stands called them the “ProTEST-ants.” And soon the name stuck: Protestants. The Reformers had looked in 2 Timothy 3:16 and read: “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching…. and for training in righteousness.” They looked in Romans 3:28 and read: “For we hold that a person is justified by faith, apart from works or law.” Then they looked in Ephesians 2:8-9 and read: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” And they discovered a pinnacle teaching of the New Testament in Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to us by which we are saved.” The Church of Rome had its own guiding documents, but now the new branches—led by people with names like Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, and Knox—had to come up with new statements of beliefs based on the Bible. So they created Confessions of Faith (that are really statements of faith). Some of them were called the Second Helvetic Confession, the Scots Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, Luther’s Small Catechism, and the big Westminster Confession of Faith with its Larger and Shorter Catechisms. The last one that I named, called the Westminster Assembly, met in Westminster Abbey, London on July 1, 1643, “and continued in active session for five years, six months, and twenty-two days. During that time there were 1,163 meetings of the full assembly, and many hundreds of meetings of committees and subcommittees. The Directory for Public Worship was completed in December 1644 … The Form of Government was completed in November 1644 … and the Confession of faith was completed in December 1646!” [Church Officer Preordination Curriculum, Revised. James E. Simpson, Geneva Press, 1986, p. 36.] Presbyterians consider that Westminster Assembly so important that many of our churches are named “Westminster” including ours! The Shorter Catechism was designed as a teaching tool for new members or communicant’s classes. The first question it asked was a classic: It’s original first question: “What is the chief end of man?” Answer: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Even back in that day; even at the end of countless meeting, the essence of the message of Scripture boiled down to that! We are to glorify God. That is one of our main purposes in life.  If you want a “Purpose Driven Life” as Rick Warren’s book suggests, start by glorifying God. His first chapter confirms it with the title; “It All Starts with God.” And the Bible bears witness to it! But the Biblical search engines before the Internet age were called “Nicene Creed,” “Apostles’ Creed,” and the confessions of faith I just named! They helped pinpoint and reference the theological terms and concepts spread through many pages of the Bible. In the Reformer’s day, obtaining a Bible was difficult. But with the advent of the printing press, people could begin to actually own a Bible; and thanks to people like Wycliffe, and Luther and others, they could read it in their own language instead of Latin. But where to find teachings about God’s glory, or God’s love; or how to treat a neighbor; or messages of reconciliation? The Creeds, Confessions or Faith, and the Catechisms tell us. Read diligently, they were designed to remind you and to tell others, what you believed. They still serve that purpose.

 

Soren Kierkegaard was a Danish philosopher who explained the idea of glorifying God with images of a theatre. Kierkegaard said in the great drama of worship, most people think of the congregation as an audience, the ministers and choir as actors, and God as a Cosmic Director. But Kierkegaard said “no.” He said that, in fact, the congregation is intended to be the actors—the ones giving glory and praise to God. The ministers and choir members are the directors—helping to encourage and inspire that glory, and God is the audience—the one receiving the glory and praise! Glory encompasses God and is rightfully God’s alone, or on occasion, God in Christ. For example in John 1:14 we read: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” An example of ones who ascribed glory to God also includes angels, seraphim, and cherubim. In Luke 2 an angel announces the birth of the Christ child and invites shepherds to see him. “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest!” Here’s another example: According to Nehemiah 9:5, on the twenty-fourth day of the month, the people of Israel heard their leaders say: “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting! Blessed by God’s glorious name which is exalted above all blessing and praise!” Also the words from Psalm 145:5 “On the glorious splendor of thy majesty, and on they wondrous woks, I will meditate. [O God]” Or the passage from Psalm 19:1 that Felix Mendelssohn incorporated into the grand anthem: “The Heavens are telling the glory of God.” And if ever there was a master of the age, who captured the glory of God in his music, it was Johann Sebastian Bach. Countless choral anthems give glory to God. But “on almost all of his manuscripts, Bach placed two sets of initials. At the end he wrote the letters, “S.D.G., Soli deo Gloria—to God alone be the glory. And J.J, Jesu juvet—Jesus help me.” [Christ in the Seasons of Ministry, John Killinger, Word Books, 1983, p. 51] Paul, of course, wrote in Romans 11:36: “For from God and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

 

Today we owe so much Biblical understand to people like the apostle Paul, John Wycliff, John Hus Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and John Knox. Of course there is one more person; the one who—500 years ago this Tuesday, this All Hallows Eve—nailed his 95 Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, and nothing has been the same since. He lived to teach, to persuade, and to translate the Bible into German. Churches around the globe are celebrating the 500 years since that momentous event. And people like Mary Ann and me have traveled to Germany and seen a church where Luther had preached, the place where he was tried, and the castle where he was hidden away from officials. Author Eric Mataxas, perhaps to commemorate this 500th year, has just had his seventh book published: Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World.” He begins the book like this:

In 1934, an African American pastor from Georgia made the trip of a lifetime, sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, through the gates of Gibraltar, and across the Mediterranean Sea to the Holy Land. After this pilgrimage he traveled to Berlin, attending an international conference of Baptist pastors. While in Germany, this man—who was named Mike King—became so impressed with what he learned about the reformed Martin Luther that he decided to do something drastic. He offered the ultimate tribute to the man’s memory by changing his own name to Martin Luther King. His five year old son was also named Michael … but he decided to change his son’s name too, and Michael King, Jr. became known to the world as Martin Luther King Jr. [Viking Press, 2017, p. I]

 

I didn’t know that story before. I knew that cartoonist Bill Watterson named his mischievous boy Calvin after who he called “the great Protestant reformer, John Calvin;” and Hobbes after “the great social philosopher, Thomas Hobbes.” The Reformers have made their mark not only in Presbyterian and Reformed Churches, but also in Episcopal Churches, Methodist Churches, Lutheran Churches, Baptist Churches, and more. Together, when ever we worship on The Lord’s Day, we join in choruses from Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” to the Fanny Crosby gospel song “To God Be the Glory.” We have learned that we are a church reformed, and always reforming. But we will never change our focus. Scripture alone is our authority; we are justified by faith alone; saved by grace alone, and through Christ alone. And to God alone be the glory. So may it be forever and ever.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 29, 2017

10-22-17 SOLUS CHRISTUS: CHRIST ALONE

SOLUS CHRISTUS: CHRIST ALONE

Acts 4: 8-12

 

Dr James Allan Francis, in his book The Real Jesus and Other Sermons, published by Judson Press in 1926, wrote these words about our Lord:

]

Let us turn now to the story. A child is born in an obscure village. He is brought up in another obscure village. He works in a carpenter shop until he is thirty, and then for three brief years is an itinerant preacher, proclaiming a message and living a life. He never writes a book. He never holds an office. He never raises an army. He never has a family of his own. He never owns a home. He never goes to college. He never travels two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He gathers a little group of friends about him and teaches them his way of life. While still a young man, the tide of popular feeling turns against him. One denies him; another betrays him. He is turned over to his enemies. He goes through the mockery of a trial; he is nailed to a cross between two thieves, and when dead is laid in a borrowed grave by the kindness of a friend.

Those are the facts of his human life. He rises from the dead. Today we look back across nineteen hundred years and ask, What kind of trail has he left across the centuries? When we try to sum up his influence, all the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned are absolutely picayune in their influence on mankind compared with that of this one solitary life…

 

Those classic words begin our time today. So far in this series we have affirmed that there is no equal to the Bible as our guidebook for life: Scripture Alone. Ullrich Zwingli was the Reformer who was the biggest proponent of that stand. Next, we looked over the shoulder of Martin Luther in his discovery as a priest. He turned in Paul’s Letter to the Romans and read: in Romans 3:28 that “people are justified by faith apart from works of law.” The Sola? Sola Fides: Faith Alone. Last week we heard Paul himself expound on another bedrock of the Reformed faith: In Ephesians 2:8 he wrote: “For by grace you are saved through faith; this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God.” The Sola of course? Sola Gratia- by Grace Alone. Today we come to the pinnacle of Christian understanding. if we were to use one of Jesus’ analogies, we would say it’s the one that separates the sheep from the goats; or actually the Christians from the non-Christians. Solus Christus- though Christ Alone. There are plenty of titles for Jesus: “Lamb of God,” “Good Shepherd,” “The Door,” or “The Way” just to name a few. Jews of his day called him “Rabbi.” But the pinnacle for followers of Christ is answering this question from Jesus. In Matthew 16:15 Jesus asks his disciples this question: “Who do you say that I am?” Here is the gold-standard answer that Peter gave, and it is the answer for each of us who call ourselves Christians: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” People who follow Jesus as Lord (not just as a good example, or a prophet, or an enlightened man, but truly as Lord) call him the “Christ,” (which means the Anointed One, or Messiah.)  Years ago I had a man challenge me on that subject, claiming we should only call Jesus “Christ” and not “The Christ.” He said calling Jesus “the Christ” is a “new age falsehood.” Tell that to Peter who said it! Tell that to Jesus who affirmed it and gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom! Christ is not a last name; it is a powerful affirmation: like “ the Messiah.” “The Christ” means there is no other. And there is not. There is no other name by which we are surely saved. The Reformers wrenched a different idea away from the church leaders of their day; the church in the 15th and 16th centuries said Christians were not entirely saved by Jesus’ death on the cross and his rising to new life. Salvation, they said, had to be completed by the church, through the sacraments, administered by a priest. The Reformers, with their noses buried in Scripture, declared what Peter declared in Acts 4: 11-12: [Jesus Christ of Nazareth] is the stone that the builders rejected, which has become the head and the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among us by which we must be saved.”    That is the foundation of the Christian faith. Notice all the builder’s terms. Jesus is “the head and the cornerstone.” A proper cornerstone sets the direction that a building will face. Set it at the wrong angle and a wall could veer too close to a nearby building or street. The cornerstone, placed first, gives direction to the church building. We can set the direction for our lives when we set the cornerstone of Christ in our life first. There is no other compass that need be in the Christian tool belt than one, like our steeple, that points heavenward, to true north.

 

Permit me a rather extensive description of how Martin Luther came to know the ultimate power of Christ on the cross. You’ll recall, first of all, that Jesus himself claimed that title—the Christ—in Mark 14: 61. The High Priest, questioning Jesus, asked him: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said these revolutionary words: “I am; and you will seen the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”  Jesus is the Christ. And for many, that is the greatest comfort and blessed assurance. The great late Dr. Roland Bainton, theologian, minister, and Professor of Church History at Yale Divinity School, wrote this brilliant description in his book Here I Stand- A Life of Martin Luther:

Luther had come into a new view of Christ and a new view of God. He had come to love the suffering Redeemer and the God unveiled on Calvary. But were they, after all, powerful enough to deliver him from the hosts of hell? The cross had resolved the conflict between the wrath and the mercy of God, and Paul had reconciled for him the inconsistency of the justice and the forgiveness of God, but what of the conflict between God and the Devil? Is God lord of all [Luther wondered], or is he himself impeded by demonic hordes?

[A Mentor Book, 1950, p 50.]

 

Luther felt tormented by the Devil The Reformers, particularly Luther, were working to carve out the full power of our Savior Jesus over the Devil. And they did it by digging into Scripture and in some cases, putting it to verse. Listen to one verse of many of Luther’s that is similar in meter to that of “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” which we will sing next week:

Thus spoke the Son, “Hold fast to me,

From now on thou wilt make it.

I gave my very life for thee

And for thee I will stake it.

For I am thine and thou art mine,

And where I am our lives entwine

The Old Fiend cannot shake it.”

{Bainton, p. 51]

The old fiend cannot shake it. Luther wrote about how he had grounded himself in Christ.

 

John Killinger author and former Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Lunchburg, Virginia, gave the summer Princeton Institute of Theology lectures in 1982, the year after I graduated. He was addressing students preparing for the Christian ministry. He told them this:

Christ and you. Christ and me. Christ and us, if you will forgive the emphatic bad grammar. Our problem is that we run dry, don’t we? The energy goes, the pump gives out; the bread is exhausted, because we get so busy supplying everybody else’s needs…. Lets not pretend, with each other or ourselves. Ministry is a lonely place without Christ. Ministry is exhausting without Christ. Ministry is impossible without Christ. Feeding on him is the only way to make it….  [Christ in the Seasons of Ministry, Word Books, 1983, p. 51]

 

Today, if you are saved by Christ, there is not an asterisk by that claim that says—in small print—“and also through the church, and through the sacraments, and through my good works.” No. We are saved through Christ alone, or we’re on sinking sand. What a blessed assurance God offered Paul when he inspired the New Testament; and what an assurance we find written in the book of Acts, chapter 4: “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among us by which we must be saved.”

 

I started with the words of Dr. James Allan Francis known as “One Solitary Life.” Let me close with the words of Stuart Townsend and Keith Getty from our anthem today. It is a wonderful statement of faith. In part it reads:

In Christ alone my hope is found. He is my light my strength, my song: this Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm…. And as He stands in victory, sin’s curse has lost its grip on me; for I am his, and he is mind bought with the precious blood of Christ….Here in the pow’r of Christ I stand.

 

Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          October 22, 2017

 

 

10-15-17 SOLA GRATIA: GRACE ALONE

SOLA GRATIA: GRACE ALONE

Ephesians 2: 4-9

 

When I was a sophomore in college, I changed my major to English Literature. As a high school student I regularly got As and Bs. College was an adjustment; I had to really study; and take notes; and buy books and write in them! Toward the end of the semester it was time to write a major term paper. It took days to do but I completed it and believed it to be good.  A few days later my professor called me into his office. He handed me my term paper! F! I had a big, red F on my paper with lots of notes written all over it in red pen. My eyes filled with tears.  “What’s wrong with it Professor Williams?” I asked. “You plagiarized!” he roared. “You stole someone else’s words!”  “What do you mean?” I asked. He replied: “ You took words right out of encyclopedias and included them as if they were yours.” In my head I was trying to figure that out. In my high school classes that was the way I had written papers. I thought that is what research was about! I was wrong.  My professor went on to explain: “Anything; anything you write that is not your own thought, or are not your own words, must be quoted and footnoted.”  My paper had few of either. According to my college handbook, he could have failed me in the very subject I had chosen as my major. “Is there anything I can do about this?” I asked lamely and desperately. My professor paused and he sighed. “You can go back to the library, and in the next two days before grades have to be turned in, rewrite this paper, footnoting everything that is not your own thought. Bring it back in, and I’ll re-grade it, then average the two grades.”  That is one of my most memorable experiences of grace: a gift from the one in power. He didn’t have to do that; I was holding up his grading. I turned in the second paper; when I got it back, I got a B+ on it. Averaged with the F on my first paper, I got a C in the class; not an F!  What a lesson! So when I wrote my Doctoral Project a few years ago, every thought that I found in a book had a footnote!

 

Grace makes people grateful. Grace is a gift, and it was a subject about which that Paul felt most powerfully, and that Jesus illustrated most abundantly. Let’s first look at Paul.  Have you noticed that even when he had important things to say, he would begin his letters with this greeting: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul was profoundly grateful for grace. “Grace” was the traditional greeting between Gentiles; peace was the traditional greeting between Jews. Paul knew his audience;  he always started with “grace,” in part because he believed that the grace of the Lord Jesus saved “a wretch like him” to quote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” We’ll look at that again in a few minutes. Paul, as Saul, had persecuted Christians and had even given permission for their death.  He was astounded that Jesus himself would appear to him in a vision, asking why he was persecuting him! Scales fell from him eyes, and he was changed. It was a major change. He was baptized, and he began a life of witnessing. All because of the grace of the Lord Jesus, who met him instead of condemning him.  In the book Paul for a New Day, published by Augsburg-Fortress Press, Robin Scroggs says: “It is my conviction that Augustine and Luther were correct at least in finding the heart of Paul’s thought in the cluster of motifs summed up in the phrase, ‘Justification by grace through faith,…  Paul said it, but it was Luther, once again, who read it and was changed by it.”  Remember last week when I said the church of Luther’s day said the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ was not sufficient for salvation; that sacraments, administered by a priest, completed the salvation process? Well in addition, there were some priests in Luther’s day who were encouraged to take financial gifts, called indulgences, to move a loved one out a state of suspended destination they called purgatory, on toward heaven.  There is no term in the Bible such as purgatory; and there is no place in the Bible where giving more money gets a person closer to salvation or through the gates of heaven.  It’s not like the “pay to play” ideas in the world, where paying a high amount of money gets a person political or business favors.  The ways of God begin with the love of God. We love because God first loved us. Likewise, God has shown us grace so that we might show grace. That makes salvation a gift, pure and simple.

 

We’ve learned how grace became so important to Paul. Now we turn to Jesus, who had had story after story demonstrating the Grace of God. Many  were called “Parables of the Kingdom.” One I read today was from Matthew 18: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.” You heard me read it. One person was brought before the king; the man could not pay. By rights the king could have been sold as a servant, along with his wife, his children, and his possessions, to recoup part of the debt. The story says, instead, that “Out of pity (that is, compassion, or grace) the king released him and forgave the debt.” What a gift! Like a judge who considers circumstances and metes out a lighter sentence than the full one allowed by law. Such a gift likely changed the life of that servant in the parable. It also can change the life of a  prisoner in a courtroom. In such cases an old life can be cast aside, and a new life can begin! Grace and love our top qualities of God! Here’s another parable Jesus told: Matthew 20: “The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” The early workers agreed to the wage and to the hours. The householder hired extra people later in the day. Some just worked for one hour. When it was time to collect their pay, the householder gave those who worked an hour the same amount as those who worked all day! Yes it sounded unfair! But Jesus couched the graciousness of the householder with these words: “Did I not keep my agreement with you? Do you begrudge me my generosity?” A third situation describing the gracious qualities of God is the woman caught in adultery, told in John chapter 8. In those days, the law stated that a woman charged with adultery could be put to death by stoning. You’ll find it in Deuteronomy 22:24.  The scribes and Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus wanting to hear what he said about the situation. It was clearly a test, and Jesus answered as if God were the judge on the matter. Here’s what Jesus said: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” Case closed. Verdict rendered; grace offered. Can you imagine gratitude filling the heart of the woman? Jesus’ sentence released her from death when he said: “Go, and sin no more.” Grace offers such a gift for those who feel condemned by the law and ashamed of their sins!

On the cover of Pastor David Jeremiah’s book it says:

“Amazing Grace’ lyrics by John Newton, words from the Apostle Paul, both men Captured by Grace.” In his book he writes:

“As for courtrooms,… we’ve heard aggrieved families shouting at thugs as they stood to hear the verdict. And we’ve agreed with them, haven’t we? It’s part of our constitution. Aren’t we supposed to support justice and jeer at evil? …. The smallest toddler retaliates to losing a toy to another child. She doesn’t reclaim her toy calmly or dispassionately. She reacts in outrage. She seizes the toy and shouts recriminations at its thief…. We get mad and we get even. Why then, do we catch our breath upon observing behavior that precisely overturns these expectations? Grace is shocking…. Grace turns human politics on its head, right before our eyes….Grace suggests that human beings may be something more than honor graduates of the animal kingdom after all …. We find a smile, perhaps even shed a tear. It’s like warming the soul at a hearth on a chilly night.” [Integrity Publishers, Nashville, 2006, p. 12]

 

John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” deplored his life until “the change.” For him, the change was from an inhumane member of the crew on a ship that tortured and killed slaves, to a man who turned his life upside down and became an abolitionist. What could possibly forgive the actions of a man like that, except the amazing grace of God through the Lord Jesus Christ? The Apostle Paul deplored his life as Saul—the driven persecutor of Christians—until “the change.” His change was in meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus. After being saved by grace and not by the Law, Paul spent the rest of his life preaching tirelessly about the Good News that Jesus saves. And I myself, after the unforgettable encounter with my English Professor, the one who chose grace over what the college handbook said the penalty was for plagiarism, graduated as an English Major who footnotes everything! I was delivered from failure.

Grace is amazing. Years ago some hymnal editors tried to change the word “wretch” in hymnals, thinking that it didn’t describe the people in the pews. But they quickly changed it back, finding plenty of broken people who, after one terrible choice or another, felt like a “wretch.” If we do not feel like we have hit rock bottom, we have less desire to grab the lifeline that has been thrown to us.  Grace is one of the greatest gifts that get us back on track, giving us a second chance.  God wants that!

Will you accept the gift of grace?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           October 15, 2017

10-08-17 SOLA FIDE: FAITH ALONE

SOLA FIDE: FAITH ALONE

Romans 3: 21-28

 

Last week I said that the Reformer most tied to the first Sola—Sola Scriptura—was Ulrich Zwingli. His gifts of reading and interpreting Scripture made him assign the Bible readings and the sermon to the very end of each service, believing everything else pointed to the highlight of God’s Word. You may have visited churches where the sermon was the final event before a hymn and benediction- those are Zwinglian liturgies! But there was another Reformer—a major one—who found the books of the Bible that we are saved by faith alone. His name was Martin Luther. After a frightening time in a lightening storm, Luther became a monk, and later a Catholic priest. “When Luther entered the monastery, he thought it would please God and contribute to his salvation.”

[The Reformation for Armchair Theologians, Glenn S. Sunshine, Westminster/John Knox Press, 2005, p.20] How many of us do things to please God, or to try to bargain with our salvation or to save us from hell? Luther did. Listen to these words: “

Soon he began having severe problems with guilt that bordered on psychosis. According to theologian R. C. Sproul, the issue that faced Luther came from legal reasoning on Jesus’ words in the Gospel.  When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,’ in short, with every fiber of your being. So Luther asked himself, ‘What is the greatest sin?’ The only possible answer was, ‘Not loving the Lord with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.’ When Luther examined himself by this standard, he realized that his emotions, his will, and his thoughts were not controlled by love for God; thus they were all violations of the greatest commandment, and mortal sins.  The net result was that Luther became extremely frantic about his guilt, spending hours every day in confession to his spiritual director….  He engaged in more and more extreme penitential practices to punish himself for his sins. He still felt unforgiven….Then something happened. While in a tower room in the monastery meditating on the Letter to the Romans, Luther was struck by a new interpretation of the phrase ‘righteousness of God.’ Martin had always thought this phrase referred to God’s absolute standards of righteousness the he expected us to live up to. Suddenly it dawned on Martin that the phrase actually referred to righteousness that comes from God to us by faith. Forgiveness of sins and salvation are thus freely available regardless of personal merit or lack thereof; it is all grace operating through faith. This doctrine, known as justification by faith, became one of the hallmarks of Protestantism …. [Sunshine, p. 21-22]

 

So our first Sola was the primary importance of reading and knowing scripture. Our second Sola was discovered right in the pages of the Bible! Yes, the prophet Habakkuk had said the words much earlier, between 608 and 598 B.C.E. But it was Paul’s masterpiece letter—the Letter to the Romans— studied by Luther and countless others, that made an impact. In the first chapter, the 17th verse, Paul offered his life-changing belief for the first time. Here is it: “As it is written, the …righteous shall live by faith.” And where had Paul read that before he wrote it? You know: Habakkuk 2: 2-4! But the second time Luther read it was Romans 3: 28. “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.” That was the new understanding that warmed and changed Luther’s heart. You might ask: “How was it taught before?” Let’s break down the verse. Justification. That’s a doctrine that says we will be “presented faultless before God just as if we had not sinned.” That’s good! But how are we justified? Some, like Luther before, believe that we are justified by our good works, meaning that we need to earn that condition of standing faultless before God; and if we have not earned it satisfactorily, we need to do penance—good deeds—to atone for (make up for) our own indiscretions. So people like Luther, who never feel worthy, either work hard to punish themselves, or they do the penance prescribed to them by a priest to “make up” for their sinfulness. But  Luther discovered that the New Testament says standing before God as if we have not sinned, does not occur because of what we do, or what priests do, or what the church does.  We can only be justified because of what God did.  It was, and is, a gift. It happened because the sins of the world were nailed to the cross of Calvary on which Jesus died. Jesus took the nails for our sakes; Jesus died through no sins of his own. That action—said Luther, and the Protestants, and the book of Romans—justifies us in the eyes of God if we fully believe in and put our trust in God. Simple yet powerful, right? But the other path of justification that the Church of Rome decreed that faithful Christians were partly justified by our faith; then they had to complete the process by participating in the church’s sacraments administered by a priest. That meant that those in that church had to participate in appropriate sacraments out of the seven: Baptism Confirmation, the Eucharist, Healing, Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders, and Matrimony—if they wanted to complete their salvation. Luther read Romans, and he knew his church’s stand. They were at odds with each other. Which would he choose? He chose Scripture, but then chose to debate the parts with which he had disagreements. He just wanted a discussion! That’s when zealous college students disseminated his 95 theses. With the recent invention of the printing press, that was easy! And the sixteenth century social media wheels started turning!

 

Can you imagine people sitting around contemplating if, or how, they are saved? They did; and they do! Many people of many faiths find it vital to consider what will give them eternal life. Many in our day hope that God grades on a curve and that their good deeds will get them through the Pearly Gates. Others believe the way the Church of Rome did in Luther’s day. Protestants believe that to be presented faultless before the throne of God happens just through our complete and unwavering belief in Jesus as Lord, who died on the cross for the sins of the world. That does it; but to believe that takes a leap of faith. The writer of Hebrews says that “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  We like to believe what we have seen; but even our eyes can deceive us. In 1956, the captain of the beautiful Italian liner Andrea Doria was certain that an oncoming ship, the Stockholm, was passing on her port side. In the fog, eyes failed them and instruments did not support what they believed to be true. Instead the Stockholm tried to pass on the starboard side and ended up plowing her bow into the hull of the Andrea Doria. The luxury liner was doomed and sunk to the bottom of the sea. Eyes don’t always have it!

 

Others have been sure they heard strange noises. Such possibilities always get stoked about Halloween with the things that go bump in the night.  Sometimes our ears deceive us too! Faith is leaning on what we cannot see. There is no way (apart from science fiction of our day) to go back to the first century and see the events about which we believe. The spiritual hymn asks us, in a metaphorical way “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” The literal answer is no. But do we believe that it happened, and that the crucifixion of Christ changed the world? “Yes” says the faith-filled Christian. We believe it happened and that it has changed our life, and it will change our life beyond death.

 

So what are we to do? Perhaps we can join the man described in Mark 9:24 who said to Jesus: “I believe! Help my unbelief.” Perhaps a comforting word comes from author Kathleen Norris in her book called Amazing Grace; A Vocabulary of Faith. She says:

          Faith is a surprise to me, as I lived without it for so long. Now I believe that it was merely dormant in the years I was not conscious of its presence. And I have become better at trusting that it is there, even when I can’t feel it, or when God seems absent from the world. No small part of my religious conversion has been coming to know that faith is best thought of as a verb, not a “thing” that we either have or don’t. Faith is not discussed as an abstraction in the gospels….I appreciate much more the wisdom of novelist Doris Betts’s assertion that faith is “not synonymous with certainty…[but] is the decision to keep your eyes open.”  [Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 169]

 

So I tell you, if you chose to believe it, that the first century apostle named Paul said this: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to five hundred more….” 1 Corinthians 15:3-6

 

How will you be presented faultless before the Throne of Grace, just as if you had not sinned?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 October 8, 2017

10-01-17 SOLA SCRIPTURA: SCRIPTURE ALONE

SOLA SCRIPTURA: SCRIPTURE ALONE

2 Timothy 3:16

 

Of all the Reformers that made a mark in their respective cities in the 16th century, the one to which we most owe the idea of Sola Scriptura is a man named Ulrich Zwingli.  Born just seven weeks after Martin Luther in 1484, his home was in Switzerland but he was educated in Vienna and Basel. He showed a remarkable talent for biblical exegesis, that is, the ability to read and interpret Scripture.  So Zwingli gave prime importance to the way Scripture was read and interpreted. Presbyterians and others in the Reformed tradition owe a debt of gratitude to him for that stance. Often we get stereotyped as people of the “head” while Methodists are people of the “heart.”  Yes but!  There are some very passionate and compassionate Presbyterians and there are some very capable and learned Methodist preachers.

 

All Presbyterians believe the Bible is the Inspired Word of God; that is to say, that God guided what to write and how to express it through prayerful conversations and illuminating visions. We believe that the Bible is without equal as our handbook for living and for glorifying God. As I told the children today, my Boy Scout Handbook was the best way to read how to be a Scout, with my Scoutmaster as my best guide, along with my Senior Patrol Leader and my parents. When it comes to my car, my owner’s manual has the best answers for maintaining or fixing my car, guided by a trusted mechanic.  When it comes to Christianity, the Bible is still the best book to go to as a handbook, and a trusted Pastor is a good guide.  The Bible also tells us most reliably about who God is. I showed the children a book called “The Christian Handbook,” that had common sense helps and regular practices in local churches. It is fun and interesting to read! But the parts about right and wrong, the parts about the Almightiness of God and the amazing birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus all come from the Bible. Yes great anthems and hymns often give glory to God, but their words are largely based on the Bible. And yes there are some wonderful Bible commentaries I could recommend, but they illuminate the Bible; they do not take the Bible’s place. In fact, back when Zwingli was advocating for the Bible, Martin Luther chimed in from Germany saying, in his opinion, Scripture should only be interpreted by the conscience. Such a statement, however, can initially lead to very different interpretations. For example, just trusting one’s conscience in the reading and understanding of the book of Revelation can lead to confusion or fear about the meaning of a passage. If you go to a library or a Christian bookstore to get books to try to understand your Bible, you can pick up five different commentaries written by five different authors that each giving widely divergent interpretations. Who do you trust? Which do you choose? This is not the time to go to the minefield of the Internet, with writers of wildly different educations, viewpoints, and even agendas. This is not the time when the Internet is your friend!  Instead, you’ll need a pastor or a Bible or Sunday School teacher you trust.  My goal is to always give you an informed answer to any Bible questions. It is your right to believe differently, but having someone, like a Bible teacher or preacher, whose goal it is to feed and encourage your soul, is best.

 

Second Timothy is an urgent pastoral letter from a missionary to a protégé.

The missionary knows his good example is essential for credibility.

So he says: “Now you have observed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my sufferings and my persecutions….” That is the kind of person you’ll want to guide you through Scripture: someone who has walked the walk and is has your best interest in mind! The writer of 2 Timothy goes on: “As for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ.” Yes, what a great piece of teaching! In the 16th century, there was growing unrest about the power and authority of the church, and growing distrust of its leaders. Some had little formal training on how to interpret the Bible! Such is the caldron from which suspicion, doubt, revolt and reorganization often takes place!  Leaders must remain trustworthy. People in that day started putting their trust, instead, in old sayings, in casual advice from friends, in myths, in legends, and astrological signs and in fortunetellers. People who have lost trust in the church’s leaders of today go to the same kind of sources sometimes to their peril. There is no guide for your Christian life better than Jesus, and there is no guidebook for your life better than Scripture. The Bible is the book on which all other Christian self-help books are based! Sola Scriptura!

 

Timothy then heard the words that are the fulcrum on which all other arguments depend. Here they are: “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful of teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” In recent years there have been discoveries and illuminating television programs regarding other writings, scrolls, and books that did not make the cut into the Canon. The Canon is the name given to the books Christian scholars prayed over and studied for years and decided to include as Scripture. Hear me on this: unless you have a complete mastery of the Bible, and you know it backwards and forwards, don’t submerge your self in the other writings that have been unearthed that are not  Scripture. People who have done that have come up to me quoting what the Bible says, and it wasn’t what the Bible at all! It was from a book that didn’t make the cut! The most glaring example of that is people reading about Jesus’ childhood in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas likely written in the second century! A classmate of mine and Scripture scholar Dr. Bart Eherman says this: “Early Christians were naturally curious to learn the details of Jesus’ life….The Infancy Gospel of Thomas …was allegedly written by a man named ‘Thomas the Israelite.’ 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!” [Lost Scriptures, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 57.]  Remember: Bart Ehrman tenured Professor of Religion at UNC, Chapel Hill, says that is “legend.” We will leave it there. You perhaps have also heard people say, “As the Bible says” and then make a statement. A famous saying is: “The Lord helps those who helps who helps themselves.” But it is not from the Bible! Benjamin Franklin quoted it in “Poor Richard’s Almanac, and he likely got it from the Englishman, Algernon Sydney!

 

One final word: you may know that Christian singer Amy Grant sang: “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” Did she make up those words? No. They are a direct quote from Psalm 119: 105. Make the Word of the Lord a lamp unto your feet, and a light unto your path.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                          October 1, 2017

09-24-17 CHOOSING LIFE OVER DEATH

CHOOSING LIFE OVER DEATH

Philippians 1: 21-30

 

Listen to this description written by an American Psychoanalyst:

Try as we may, it is difficult to conceive of our universe in terms of concord; instead, we are faced everywhere with the evidences of conflict. Love and hate, production and consumption, creation and destructions—the constant war of opposing tendencies would appear to be the dynamic heart of the world.  [People] run the eager gamut of life through hazards of sickness and accidents, beasts and bacteria, the malignant power of the forces of nature and the vengeful hands of [others.] ….Time and time again in the past few years, the swollen waters of the Ohio, the Mississippi, and other rivers have poured over the fields and cities of populous areas, sweeping away the homes and the gardens, the books and the treasures, the food and factories of a million people. Almost at the same time and in the same country, trees died of drought, grass withered in the heat, cattle perished of thirst and starvation, birds and little wild beasts disappeared and a brown-grey crust replaced the usual verdure of landscape. And recently again, the Pacific Coast was shaken by earthquakes …while the Atlantic Coast was wept with hurricanes and devastating storms.

 

These are conditions that can make any of us feel very jaded about the world; about life; about living through such horrors or sorrowful events. It can even make people long for days gone by, sometimes called “the good old days.” When were those days exactly? Because the words I just read were written by Dr. Karl Menninger from Topeka, Kansas. He wrote them in 1938! 1938. [Man Against Himself, Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc. New York; 1938; Harvest Books. Edition 1966, p. 3.]  So why do I share this? There is a temptation for people to see the times in which we are living—with extra hate, extra storms, and extra conflict—as a product of our modern age. But instead it is a product of the human race and nature’s swings from light to darkness.  What’s good to learn are the attitude and outlooks that bode well for our good life on this earth. We think things are bad; but they have been worse, and may very well get worse. How will we cope with that? What will be our life choices?

 

Perhaps you, like I, were asked to read Victor Frankl’s work of non-fiction called Man’s Search for Meaning. I read it in both college and seminary.  It is now quoted in the current Ken Burns television series on Vietnam.  The book is not mainly about life in a Nazi concentration camp; it is about what Frankl learned about people and their desire to live or die.

Listen to this description of that book:

Frankl never gives the reader a linear narrative of his time in the camps—instead he is more focused on how the daily struggles of camp life affected the mental state of its inmates.  As a result, he only gives details about his experience when those details can be used as evidence for his psychological theories. [He said he observed that] the typical prisoner passes through three mental stages: shock in the first few days of his arrival, apathy and “emotional death” once he has become accustomed to life in camp, and disillusionment with life after he has been liberated….The core of Frankl’s philosophy is that a [person’s] deepest desire is to find meaning in his life, and if he can find that meaning, he can survive anything.  [LitCharts Summary]

 

What makes you desire to live; to keep going against hardships? Or do you secretly wish you could die?  In Hospice rooms around the country, people afflicted with an illness can gain hope spiritually and endorphins physically if they are surround by or kissed by those they love. Many of them want to live another day. The human will is powerful in the struggle for life or the desire for death.  In World War II, men would often have a picture of a girlfriend, his wife, or their children to give them the will to live in the midst of war.  On the other end of the spectrum, teenagers who have been jilted by a boyfriend or girlfriend might consider taking their own lives because they can’t see any happy way forward. Who decided that it is a good idea to have high school and college students read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with its tragic final scene? It seems that when we are focused on a purpose for living—a reason for living—many people can continue against mounting odds. Those who lose that focus—like with the death of a spouse, or a child, or a friend—can go through the stages I listed—shock, apathy or “emotional death,” and disillusionment. That is truly the low road, leading people to lose their will to live. But the high road can even lead a man in a concentration camp to see his way forward.

 

The Apostle Paul gives us yet another example of a man who discovered meaning in his life. This man, Paul—sometimes hounded by local officials—found meaning in the shortness of the time he had to get the Word out about Jesus. And, in his letter to the Philippians, which is my text today, Paul shows us how, in speaking to the Philippians—he expressing his joy in them.  Hewas writing from prison; hewas being held under a capital charge, meaning that if he were found guilty, he would be put to death! Can you tell that by reading or hearing his letter, when he says things like: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice! Have no anxiety about anything!” [4:4,6] Had Paul discovered what Frankl had discovered? Who do you know who has figured out the secret of life well lived? And who do you know who seeks death?

 

There are those who have said to me and to others, that they just want to die; they don’t like the world and they have pain or limitations that have contributed to their loss of a will to live. The answer for them is not to pack their bags and go to an imagined celestial railway station, hoping that the train going to heaven will stop to pick them up. They may be making that choice with years of life on earth still in front of them! No. As we learn from Paul in Philippians, the action that must take place is to find new meaning, a new reason, or a new purpose for their life. Likely that will not just fall into their lap as they sit in their chair or lay in their bed. As the Reverend Mother urged Sister Maria in The Sound of Music to “climb every mountain until you find your dream,” people in the ditch of apathy or sorrow will need to find new light in their darkness. Sometimes it will take you, or me, to gently accompany them; to take their hand, as Jesus would, and lead them to new green pastures. There are green pastures. Sometimes our murky sorrow keeps us from seeing them. Paul puts it this way in Philippians 1: “What shall I choose? I do not know. … I desire to depart [meaning to die] and be with Christ, which is better by far [than this world;] but it is more necessary for you [the Philippian Christians] that I remain in the body.” Do you hear how Paul realizes that others are watching him and learning from him? There are little eyes on him, and wise older eyes, just as they are watching you. If someone knows you are a Christian, they want to learn how you handle sorrow, or war, or illness. Anyone, Christian or non-Christian, can fall into bitterness or despair. But if our hope in Christ and the guidance of our New Testaments mean anything, they point us toward Christ and His example of how life is to be lived, and how death is not just your grand day when your prison door is opened and you fly away. Instead, as Paul sees it, it is the last day you have on earth to set an example for others. Paul says it this way: “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” That is our charge when we put on the armor or the clothing of Christ. We do not just disengage. We pray; we ask for help; and we fight the darkness that threatens to cloak our eyes and smother our hearts. 

 

God has given every living creature a will to live. Sometimes human beings just think too much, or get their hearts broken, or get filled with disappointments. The Christian life offers no hope to the birds of the air, the animals on the ground, or the fish in the sea other than God created them and loves them. But this book—The Bible—is for human beings to read and use as stewards of God’s world. It is only profitable to human beings who read and follow it. It is a book of faith, hope, and love: qualities that humans desperately need in regular doses so they can assimilate them into their life choices. Paul urges the downtrodden, the weary, or the hopeless to “stand firm.” The difference between those who lived through concentration camps—like Victor Frankl as we heard, or like Corrie Ten Boom in the non-fiction work The Hiding Place—is hope in place of hopelessness.

 

Even John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, has a surprisingly optimistic take on Paul’s words in Philippians 1:21:

“Assuredly it is Christ alone that makes us happy both in death and in life; otherwise, if death is miserable, life is in no degree happier; so that it is difficult to determine whether it is more advantageous to live or to die out of Christ. On the other hand, let Christ be with us, and he will bless our life as well as our death….” [Calvin’s Commentary, Vol XXI, Baker Books, p. 42.] Could it be that an attitude that keeps you feeling miserable and victimized on earth will go to heaven with you too?

 

Let me close with one of Jesus’ miracles. In Matthew 14: 22-33, Jesus had just performed the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand. He sent his disciples off into a boat on the Sea of Galilee and he dismissed the crowds. Jesus was not, at the time, with his disciples. Without Jesus with them, winds whipped the disciples and their small boat. The Bible says those grown men were terrified, perhaps afraid they would drown and die. What was Jesus doing? Why wasn’t he with them? Jesus was praying. Could it be, friends, that when your eyes cannot see Jesus, or your hand does not feel his hand in yours, that Jesus is praying, perhaps for you; perhaps for our broken world; perhaps for your loved ones; perhaps even for your enemies? Jesus is always about the world, and always about those of us who claim to be sheep in his flock. He has not abandoned you.  He is praying for you, praying that you find the faith, hope, and love: the things that he needs for us to have as the body of Christ in the world! This is not chastisement; this is encouragement for those who feel like giving up. Jesus prays for you; and we will walk with you in whatever unfolds in the next chapter of the book called “This is Your Life.” What will that chapter say about the example you set for others?

Let us pray:

Dear Creator God: we never just live for ourselves; we live for you, our Creator; we live for Jesus; we live for those we love; and we live not just for today, but for tomorrow. Clear our eyes and pull the burdens off of our souls so that, with new conviction, we can live through this life, whether it’s troubled or joyous, knowing that Jesus is behind us, before us, beside us and inside us. We show him to others.  In the words of another famous prayer: “Help us to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 September 24, 2017

 

09-17-17 PRAYER OF INTERCESSION AND THANKSGIVING

PRAYER OF INTERCESSION AND THANKSGIVING

 

Dear God, who at times prods us into action and at other times comforts us in our sadness: stand with your people during this time that has affected Caribbean countries along with South Atlantic and Gulf states.  Lives have been changed and, in some cases, homes have been lost. We are told that the most important things to save are lives, but we also have special memories in pictures, baby books, wedding albums, mementos, or libraries. We can feel loss, and many have. We pray for them. For others who have made it through the storm mostly unscathed, we join them in giving thanks. But there will still be anxiety and disorientation for a while.  Prod those who need prodding into action to help others; comfort those who need comforting by putting your everlasting arms around them.

 

You alone are Holy, O God. We praise you and thank you for our Savior Jesus. The Way, the Truth, and the Life  comforts and guides us. Help us to lean on and depend on him!

 

We pray for our four missionaries in South Asia and South Sudan, that they have the resources and the resourcefulness they need. We pray for our Presbyterian Counseling Center in its continuing ministry toward helping to make people and relationships whole. And we pray for Solutions By-The-Sea as Commissioned Ruling Elder Tobias Caskey continues to lead people after incarceration or addiction.
Hear our prayer, O God, and move among us by the power of your Holy Spirit. Through Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 September 17, 2017