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

05-26-19 REVELATION: GATHERED AT THE RIVER


Revelation 21:22-22:5

Today we come to our last encounter for a while with the book of Revelation. Let’s recap:
1) The book is always Revelation, not Revelations! It is Jesus’ revelation to John.
2) We take the book seriously, but not literally; it means what it means, not what it says.
3) The book is a series of letters John wrote to 7 churches in Asia Minor regarding their persecution by the current (94 A.D.) Roman Emperor, named Domitian.
4) John’s message was meant to frighten those with little scriptural knowledge (like those who were guarding him) and meant to comfort people who knew scripture.
5) Of the 404 verses in the book of Revelation, 278 allude to an Old Testament passage.
6) The bottom line of the book: God wins; Satan loses.
7) Numbers are meaningful in this book.

Also as a reminder: Revelation is not an almanac or a predictor of what will happen in coming centuries. Hear what Dr. Craig Koester Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota says about the subject:
Members of sectarian groups have long been attracted to Revelation as a source of clues concerning the time of Christ’s coming. The groups described below exemplify a pattern in which a charismatic individual develops a distinctive interpretation of biblical texts and gathers a group of followers who anticipate that time will end in the near future…. One of the most important end-time movements in America began through the preaching of William Miller (1782-1849)…He settled in New York State, and after extensively studying Daniel and Revelation, … [said] that the consummation (rapture) would come in 1843-1844. As the time approached, Miller refined his calculations, announcing Christ’s return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When the dates Miller set came and went without Christ’s visible return, [Miller] acknowledged that [he] had misunderstood the time foretold by biblical prophesy… A woman named Ellen White, who experienced trances, gathered a few of Miller’s followers who adhered to this spiritualized view into the group that became the Seventh Day Adventists….In the decades that followed [what was called ] the Great Disappointment, new dates for the coming of Christ continued to be proposed….A man named Charles Taze Russell (1852-1916) began popularizing the view that Christ returned spiritually in 1874, inaugurating a millennial dawn period that would climax with the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth in 1914. Russell spread his views by organizing Bible studies and producing literature through the Watch Tower Tract Society…. Revelation has had a central place in the thinking of Jehovah’s Witnesses [especially the literal interpretation that only 144,000 will have a special place there as priest of God and kings of God.] The idea came from Revelation 7:4-8 and 14:1-5. The other most famous group with a charismatic leader who read Revelation as a predictor of the last days was the Branch Davidians under the leader Vernon Howell, who renamed himself David Koresh.]
(Revelation and the End of All Things, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, pp. 14-17)

So, stay on the straight and narrow with me! Last week we learned that John had just given a detailed account of the walls and gates of the holy city. The actual Temple had been destroyed about 20 years before Revelation was written. We might expect news from John that the Temple was going to be rebuilt. But no! The edifice that had been so important was now no longer is needed! Why? Chapter 21, verse 22 tells us: the temple in New Jerusalem “is the Lord God and the Almighty and the Lamb.” In other words, God is present everywhere in that Holy City, not just dwelling in a Temple! Incredible! We might expect street lights or lamps to be there, and we might wonder if we’ll see the sun or the moon. No; they aren’t needed since “The glory of God is the light for the city, and it’s lamp is the Lamb.” (Remember, the lamp is not a real lamb, the Lamb is Jesus Christ, who himself said in John’s gospel that he is the light of the world. John 8:12). In this new city, nations will walk in the light of Christ; and kings of the earth will bring their glory to the one who truly deserves glory! And almost like being near the North Pole, there is no night in the Holy City. Here we read how although the gates are open forever, those invited to enter are ones who call Jesus “Lord” and follow him. Those are the ones said to be written in the Lamb’s book of life. Again, don’t fall into literalism here or in the rest of Revelation. This revealing has a mystical sense about it. Also do not think Jesus needs you to be judge and jury about which of your acquaintances will be there and which ones will not. Leave that to Jesus!

In chapter 22 a new scene is revealed, almost like the curtain in a play rising to reveal it. In this scene, a river—bright bright as crystal—flows from the throne of God! Jesus promised to all who thirst that they will have “water from the fountain.” The thirst for righteousness is now being fulfilled in this new place! And in a vision that is almost a return to Eden, we find a tree—not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—but the tree of life, with 12 kinds of fruit. Robert H. Mounce, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, wrote a commentary that our Revelation class used for the entire semester at Princeton Seminary. He wrote this about verse 2: “The imagery has a double source. In the early chapters of Genesis we read that if Adam had eaten of the tree of life, he would have received immortality (Gen. 2: 9; 3:22) In Ezekiel there is also a picture of healing waters flowing from the temple to form a river along whose banks are trees which each month bring forth new fruit whose leaves are for healing. (Ezekiel 47:12) The tree of life was a regular feature in Jewish portrayals of Paradise.” [The Book of Revelation, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing,1977, p. 387] Now we know why there were 12 kinds of fruit: a new and refreshing fruit grew once every month a year! It means there is plenty to eat for all!

Next it is revealed that nothing accursed shall be there: no serpents, not demons, nothing, but only those who love the Lamb Jesus and want to be with him forever! If you want that, then you get to see his face too! People have speculated about the face of Jesus from famous painters, to National Geographic researchers, to a little boy who said he saw Jesus in heaven, described in the book Heaven is for Real. What do you think Jesus will look like? Even though God said in the book of Exodus that mortals could not look upon the face of God and live, (Exodus 33:20) we will get to see the face of Jesus in New Jerusalem! And remember how Revelation 13:16 said people who followed the beast (who was the cunning and brutal emperor) would bear his mark upon their foreheads (perhaps not literally, but symbolically) to indicate that people who looked at them could see their loyalty to the beast? Revelation 22:4 indicates that those who love and are faithful to God “would bear the name of God on [their foreheads.]” (Mounce, p. 388) That means, “We belong to God.” Our Presbyterian Church (USA) “Brief Statement of Faith” begins with these words striking words: “In life and in death, we belong to God.” Indeed we do. Be comforted by those words here, and in the hereafter.

This is the final destination of our guided tour through this “apocalypse” (which means “revealing.”) What else is like this final scene? Very little. I tried to imagine it: Perhaps it is like those who go to Scandinavia and actually see the Northern Lights. Perhaps it is like those who went to the moon, peering out of the capsule windows and looking back at earth. Maybe it would be like legendary people going deep beneath the ocean and finding the lost city of Atlantis. It gives us something to dream about and to hope for. It also is yet another reason our Lord deserves our thanks and praise! Now, shall we gather at the river?

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 26, 2019

05-19-19 REVELATION: NEW JERUSALEM

Revelation 21: 1-6

Because the young and engaging Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans died just two weeks ago at age 37, I bought my second book of hers to read: Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again, In it I found a striking parallel to our passage for today. Listen:

The people of Israel had once boasted of a king, a temple, and a great expanse of land—all of which they believed had been given to them by God and ensured to them forever. But in the sixth century BC, King Nebuchadnezzar [of Babylon] laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying both the city and its temple. Many of the Jews who lived there were taken captive and forced into the empire’s service. Others remained, but without a king, or a place of worship, without a national identity.

Israel had already gone through a national calamity in its history, creating a religious, political, and social crisis. But Jerusalem and the Temple had been rebuilt afterwards. It stood proudly until 70 AD when it was destroyed by the Romans. And to this day, it has never been rebuilt! The Western Wall in modern day Jerusalem is the last above-ground vestige of that holy edifice. Today’s passage is about New Jerusalem.

Remember that John wrote Revelation about 95 AD, 20 years after Jerusalem fell along with the temple. Today we have a lot of ground to cover since last week’s sermon ended with chapter 7. Today in chapter 8, the seventh seal is opened and there is a half-hour of silence followed by seven angels and seven trumpets, coupled with plagues and extreme events of nature. Those were meant to terrify John’s guards. Then there was a burning star, perhaps like a meteor, landing on the earth, making the waters putrid. Even though C.S. Lewis called a junior tempter to the devil “Wormwood” in The Screwtape Letters, here Wormwood is named after the name of a strong and deadly plant of the same name, referenced in Proverbs 5: 3-4, Lamentations 3:19, and in Jeremiah 9:15. There is then the naming of a woe coming upon the earth with the appearance like a plague of locusts. It is suggested that their king is from the bottomless pit of Sheol and the king’s name is Appollyn, or “destroyer.” These fearful warnings are woes to frighten the faithless and to comfort the faithful. John hoped they would recognize the stories of God’s deliverance from Egypt after God delivering plague after plague against Pharaoh and his people. Then he references an Ezekiel 2:8- 3:3 passage where God commanded to eat a little scroll. Following suit, Jesus asks John to pick up a little scroll, saying “Take it and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach but sweet as honey to your mouth.” (Rev. 10:9.) That was to say, “what you are enduring now is bitter, but the outcome will be sweet.” Next in chapter 11, the Temple was measured as if to see the dimensions for its re-creation! That was a hopeful message! Was it to be a rebuild? Yes, but in a different place. It was to become a new Jerusalem! The seventh angel blew his trumpet and he said what Handel captured for us forever: “The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and eh shall reign forever and ever!” (Rev. 11:15) Then “The twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshipped God! ….” “Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. (Rev. 11:16;19.) John again reminded his readers of the powerful words from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk.“The Lord is in his Holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Hab 2:20) What a drama these letters contain!

Now we get to some of the characters: The woman in chapter 12 sounds like she could be Mary, but remember, most references are from the Hebrew Bible. So, scholars say the woman is a heavenly representative of God’s people, whose prophet Isaiah declared, “for unto us a child is born”. A dragon appears, clearly called the Devil and Satan in chapter 12:9, and there is a depiction of a cosmic war. But remember, the underlying theme of this book never lets the devil win! The theme is: God wins; Satan loses. So we let this drama play out without being sucked into its dreadful images.

Chapter 13 is the famous one of the beast rising out of the sea. The horns in this case indicated the brute force by which the emperors had claimed their territories. They had 10 diadems, or crowns, to indicate they were the most ruthless of the 12 Roman Caesars. The seven heads on the beast (who is human) indicated that the emperor drew his evil power form the seven-headed dragon, who we learned was Satan. Revelation 13’s most famous passage is verse 18: “This calls for wisdom: let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty six.” Oh my goodness how much ink and film has been spent on that verse! Hebrew letters had numerical equivalents; John knew that and the people in the 7 churches knew that! They just had to figure out who he was describing. Through the ages writers have pointed to evil men like Adolf Hitler and said he was 666. He was evil, but not the one John was describing. In the 1980s some cryptologists wrongly said it added up to the name of a good man—Ronald Reagan—saying he was 666. Nonsense. 666 was the number for “Neron Caesar,” the most horrible emperor to Christians in recent memory. The alternate number in your Bibles, 616, indicated the more colloquial title of the emperor, “Nero Caesar.” John was saying “Remember how Nero had his life end in disgrace and humiliation? So it will happen with this emperor, (Domitian) too!” There has been so much publishing and film money raked in over such nonsensical identifications of John’s mystery beast through the ages.

Chapters 14 includes the wonderful verse you often hear at burials: A voice from heaven said: “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord henceforth. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors, and their words do follow them.” That is the comfort for the faithful. For those who are not faithful, we get the image from “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” based on Revelation 14: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.” Rev. 14:14-20 is not good news from any enemies of God! Chapter 15 contains the “glassy sea” references in the beloved hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” which was another image to comfort the faithful. But then seven bowls of God’s wrath are poured out on those who seek to hurt God’s children in chapter 16! Just as all Jews remembered that Babylon fell along with Nebuchadnezzar ages before, here John equates Babylon with Rome, the city with its “seven hills.” She is depicted as a harlot, drunk with excesses in chapter 17. In chapter 18, Babylon—Rome—is about to fall. The merchants begin weeping as the coins they have to use have the face of the beast on them- the emperor! Extravagant and corrupt livings starts to make Rome crumble, which leads to loud rejoicing in Heaven, as all cry out: “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are just and true!” Rev. 19: 1,2,) Then “heaven opened, and there was the white horse! And he who sat upon the horse was called ‘Faithful and True.’” What a drama Jesus shared with John.

Chapter 20, and its interpretation has also been the source of countless pages of speculation about when Christ will return: before a thousand years, after a thousand years, or some other time? And in the meantime, will Satan be loosed or not? So many people slip into literal readings of Revelation 20: verses 7 & 8. It is imagery for the end of the first century, not a prediction for a thousand years from then, or 2000 years from then! You might remember many more books on the subject of the so called “rapture” and “tribulation as we got to Y2K. Cast those books aside. Even the exceedingly popular “Left Behind” series capitalized on the fear of the readers, strategically published the series from 1995-2007.

Finally, after enduring threatening storms, and beasts, and plagues, and horrifying images, we come into a clearing, and we find Jesus, ready to let us know that this was where he was leading us! There is a place, where Jerusalem looks majestic; there is a place where the temple is gloriously rebuilt with pearly gates (not literal, remember!) jewel adorned walls, and streets paved with gold! There is a place, and Jesus tells us what it is called. Listen:

21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home[a] of God is among mortals.

He will dwell[b] with them;

they will be his peoples,[c]

and God himself will be with them;[d]

4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.

Death will be no more;

mourning and crying and pain will be no more,

for the first things have passed away.”

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 

This is comfort for the faithful. Drink it in.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 19, 2019

05-12-19 REVELATION: LAMB

Revelation 7: 9-17

Today we will continue to unpack the book of Revelation, one that some find fearful, while those with the code can find hopeful. As I said last week, in the last part of the first century, John, the author, wrote letters of hope and encouragement to 7 churches in Asia Minor, now modern-day Turkey. The 7 churches were in Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. By extension, John’s advice can help modern day churches too. You might be saying in your head: “What modern day lesson can I possibly learn from this book?” I’ll tell you: more books have been written and wrongly interpreted about the tribulation, Armageddon, 666, the beast, and the Last Days to the point that it has kept Christian publishing afloat with all of its conspiracy theories, prophecy-filled warnings, and fear mongering. One wrong interpreter in the 1970s warned that the tribulation would come before the end of that decade, and that Christ would return then to judge all people. It didn’t happen, even as his words scarred a generation into looking into every headline as a sign that the devil was appearing from the sea of politics. In the 1980s, another man sent a self-published book to pastors all over the country warning them that Revelation has predicted that we are in the end days, and according to his biblical calculations, the world would end in 1988. The world didn’t end. What did both authors do? Both authors then published revised editions of their books with new predictions, saying that God told them a new date for the end of the world, which of course, was not true either. They continued to make more money off of naïve and fearful Christians. Don’t fall for those high-intensity authors who try to stir up the lives and souls of readers! Today I will keep trying to keep you well-grounded in this controversial book.

Last week we dealt with chapters 1 through 5. Now we are on to chapters six and seven. In chapter 6 the seven seals are opened by the Lamb (the honorific title for Jesus Christ,) and readers are invited to “Come!” (7 is the perfect biblical number) We then encounter the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” referenced mysteriously in literature and film through the ages. The reference, as with 75% of Revelation, is from the Old Testament, not some time in the 20th or the 21st century! The imagery is from the book of Zechariah (1:8-17 and 6: 1-8.) John magnifies the meaning of the colors of the horses, indicating that the white one symbolized conquest, the red horse bloodshed, the black horse scarcity or famine, and the pale horse, pestilence and death. That colorful description is part of the first four seals. The fifth seal revealed the prayers of the martyrs in heaven, and the sixth seal a warning of what it will be like when the great Day of the Lord arrives. Then like, with any good production, John adds a dramatic pause—an interlude—before the seventh seal is opened. That interlude is a source of one religious group’s belief that heaven has only 144,000 souls in it, based on the description of 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Judah, 12,000 sealed from the tribe of Reuben, and 12,000 from all the others tribes representing the 12 sons of Israel. But remember: Revelation is not intended to be interpreted literally any more than a Salvador Dali painting is intended to be. It needs our “right” brain; our disciplined imagination, not our flat-footed literal brain, to interpret it properly. The twelve thousand members of each of the 12 tribes of Israel are not meant to create a literal number; they are intended to symbolize completeness and inclusion, saying “Heaven has room for all the people of God!” In chapter 7, we see the believers in Jesus, who is the Lamb, come together in a time of heavenly worship, with white robes and palm branches, crying out “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!” (7:10)
There are two things to point out here: on Passover each year up to 70 A.D., a high priest would select the most perfect lamb, an unblemished lamb, to be sacrificed in the temple for the sins of the Jewish people. It was a yearly spring ritual, coupled with the fall holy day of Yom Kippur, on which the sins of Jews were forgiven. It was at that time of Passover, in the spring, at 3:00 p.m. when the high priest killed the selected lamb, the very time when the lamb of God who took away the sin of the world, died on the cross of Calvary. It was providential timing. Calling Jesus “Lamb” reminds us of his sacrifice; but it also makes him the focal point of Christian worship. That leads to the second point: if you have read our congregation’s Mission Statement for Worship, you might remember that it states: “The Westminster Catechism reminds us that our chief end is to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’ Worship takes its place as the central activity of the church, the ‘hub’ of the wheel from which other aspects of Christian life flow.” In other words, what we do every week on Sunday is a kind of preparation for our lives in heaven, when we will sing praise to God and the Lamb eternally!

Naively, in chapter 7, in that heavenly throne room, one of the elders asked Jesus “Who are these clothed in white robes? And Jesus said, “Sir, you know; these are the ones who have come out of the great tribulation.” (Remember, those seven churches were under great duress from Roman Emperor Domitian just as they had been under Emperor Nero.) This is another place you use your right brain and not your “left, or literal brain”: Jesus continued: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” How could blood turn robes white? How could it not, if we think symbolically about the blood of Jesus?

The finale of our visit today keeps us in the throne room of heaven. Jesus continued to share his words of reassurance to the one who asked the question, and we get to listen in: Here is what John heard from Jesus about that scene:
Therefore, they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne (God) will shelter them. They will hunger no more, they will thirst no more. The sun will not strike them nor scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (7:15-17)

Can you imagine the comfort John’s apocalypse brought to the listeners of those seven churches? Of course you can! You, like people through the centuries, have also suffered hardships, and tribulations, and anguish, and grief. It is in those times that we turn to our Bibles and open them. In how many funerals have you heard these comforting words from Revelation?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no more sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven ….And I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Behold the dwelling of God is with mortals. God will dwell with them, and they shall be his people …and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more….

Images and words from this magnificent and picturesque book comforted Christians in the First Century, and in every century for those who knew how to unlock the code correctly! Others have lived in terror and paranoia, waiting for the dreadful “Day of the Lord” to immanently arrive. But you know how to read this kaleidoscope of a book! You can see through all the colors and shapes and voices and beasts! Christians who’ve had the code have found these words comforting. You have the code now: Don’t read the words of John literally. Do not be thrown off track by popular and dramatic Christian authors. Stay close to the source, and listen to solid interpreters with care. Next week we’ll continue our journey.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 12, 2019

05-05-19 REVELATION: WORTHY

Revelation 5: 11-14

There is a commercial on television about a younger generation starting to act like their parents. In one scene the narrator says: “We can’t keep you from becoming your parents,” and in the background a man comes up to a scenic overlook and, instead of looking at the beauty of what’s before him, says, “Look! A plaque!” And he begins to read it aloud for all to hear. My mother used to do that at most every place we stopped (Eye roll). Today I become my mother! Not with a plaque, but as a guide, I want to help you approach the overlook of the book of Revelation! Do not fear! I am well trained in this book. Dr. Bruce Metzger, New Testament professor at Princeton Seminary when I attended, taught this book to a whole class of us for an entire semester. He is the one who translated and complied the Bibles in front of you. He taught us well. I have taught this book to our Men’s group recently and will teach it to our Disciple class in 2020. So get ready as you peer over the edge; your guide will read the Revelation plaques for you momentarily!

So, yes, I have become a plaque reader because I’ve learned so much by reading them. When Mary Ann asked me to accompany her almost five years ago to the Salvador Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Florida, I went with reluctance since I found his painting strange and incomprehensible. I went with attitude, but I came out a fan, thanks to plaques and guides; they helped me understand the man behind the strange paintings! Today you may also be sitting with attitude regarding the Salvador Dali-like strange book of the Bible, but by the end of this month I hope to allay your fears and help you find the book meaningful, rather than strange and incomprehensible. Let’s begin.

Dr. Metzger was fond of saying, “Revelation doesn’t mean what it says; it means what it means.” Gibberish, right? No. My grandson Calvin once heard a woman say about another person: “She’s as big as a house.” Calvin said, “She’s not as big as a house!” which of course, she wasn’t. I explained to him it was an expression, and an exaggeration. You’ll need to think like that to unlock the codes of Revelation! And indeed, there is a code to this book. It was written by John, imprisoned on the isle of Patmos for being a Christian witness. I have been to that island and witnessed that prison cell. Roman Emperor Domitian was brutal toward Christians, much as his predecessor Emperor Nero was. He is said to have burned Christians alive to light the games at the Circus Maximus. John was writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, which are in present day Turkey. I have also been to those sites. He was seeking to encourage them in Christ, even amidst persecution. His bottom line: “God wins; Rome loses.” His letters were meant for those specific churches, but they are timeless in the sense that they speak to modern churches as well. In order to get his letters passed the guards, he had to write them in such a way that they would think he was a ranting lunatic, hoping that the Christians, steeped in the words of what we call the Old Testament, would understand his meaning. You see, 75% of the symbol, images, and allusions in Revelation came from those early scriptures! John counted on the Christians getting his meaning and for the Romans to let the letters get to their destination. He said in a vision that he saw seven lampstands, (seven the number of completeness, and lamps being the light of Christ in each church). Each church also had an angel, a messenger and protector of sorts, and he mentioned them too for encouragement. He clearly described the tribulations of those congregations. Then in chapter 4, “A door in heaven opened.” That was the first of his visions of that glorious place called heaven, but remember, it is symbolic, not literal, when “around the throne were twenty four thrones (12 for those who came from a Jewish background, 12 for those who came from a Gentile background.) They were clad in white garments which symbolized purity. And golden crowns were on their heads meaning they were honored for following Christ. They were praising the one on the throne singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come!”

Then comes chapter 5, our chapter for today. In the right hand of him seated on the throne (the right hand is always known as the hand of blessing) there was a scroll, closed up with seven seals. “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” asked an angel. No one was worthy on earth; no not one. But an elder said: “Weep not, for lo, the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals!” So all the creatures and angels and others in heaven began praising and magnifying the name of the one seated on the throne—the glorified Christ! They were so grateful that they praised the only one who could share the blessings and open the seals! By his stripes, he was worthy!

Then we come to our text today: 5: 11-14. We are viewing what in music is called the “crescendo,” and in life it might be called a culmination. Imagine it being accompanied by timpani drums and herald trumpets, for it was a great announcement! Everything that had life and breath, as Psalm 150 describes, began praising the Lamb, who is the one who was slain and was granted all power by God! What a dramatic, majestic scene it must have been, unlike anything human special effects teams could create! Together they proclaimed what all of them knew; “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!” Because he is so worthy, we are also are invited to transport ourselves to that heavenly throne room and bring his glory back here to earth: in our services of worship; with our witness; and through the majesty of rocks and trees and skies and seas, for all to hear and see! If this Lamb is worthy—this one we call Jesus Christ—of what is he worthy? The angels—myriads and myriads, thousands upon thousands, literally a heavenly host—tell us he is worthy to receive: Power! Wealth! (Things humans often clamor to get) Wisdom! (The Lamb’s wisdom is great; ours is wanting) Might! Honor! Glory! Blessing! Accolade upon accolade is poured out from the mouths of thousands! Why? So hopeless Christians will be reminded of how much power and wisdom has been given to their Savior; so that, as Paul put it in his letter to the Romans, we will never forget that nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (8:39)

Don’t run from Revelation; we need the message of Revelation! And together, we will continue to unpack its message, including dazzling flashes of heaven and unfailing messages of hope. Now this joyous service of Holy Communion will get us in practice for the Heavenly praise and the banquet table that awaits us! The hymn we turn to now has as many superlatives in it as the book of Revelation does! Let us praise the Lamb of God!

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 5, 2019

04-28-19 Believing After Easter

Believing After Easter John 20:19-29 2nd Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019
Radford Rader Westminster by the Sea Presbyterian

Thomas missed Easter. He wasn’t there with everyone else. He wasn’t there when the Risen Lord stood among them and said, “Peace to you”. He missed Jesus first showing of his hands and side, the signs of his suffering and the proof of his bodily resurrection. He missed the commissioning of the infant church and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Thomas wasn’t there for Easter.
We don’t know why…he was a twin so maybe went to visit his sibling

…maybe he had gone fishing that Sunday…maybe he decided to be alone to pray or was one of those people who preferred to grieve in private…maybe he just didn’t get the word that circulated among Jesus’ friends after Mary found the tomb empty. Everybody else was now sure of the resurrect
tion, everybody but Thomas.
The other disciples tried to tell him about it like those who have gone on a retreat together, come back all aglow and try to share with you their common experience. They were abuzz like those who were here last Sunday, overjoyed by the crowd, moved by the marvelous music, touched by the sermon and are still excited about the Easter you missed. Easter second hand was for Thomas like seeing 200 pictures of another cruise to Alaska.
Thomas needed more. The Sunday after Easter, the disciples were together again. This time, Thomas showed up. They were back in the same sanctuary. The door was again closed. Again, Jesus stands among them. He makes himself known. He extends his hand and says, to Thomas, put your finger here, examine my hands.” He pulls up his shirt and invites Thomas to put his hand and in his side. Thomas doesn’t move forward but instead drips to his knees, confessing “My Lord and My God”. It is the Sunday after when Easter comes to Thomas.
Every one of us is Thomas, because we all missed Easter. We couldn’t help it; it happened long before we were born. We didn’t have a chance to go and discover the empty tomb. We couldn’t enter with Peter and see the discarded grave cloths. We all missed the first Sunday night worship in the Upper Room. It all happened millennia ago. For that matter we missed Thomas’ Easter too. We’re not in the Easter picture; we’re the ones for whom the story is told. We’re the people about whom Jesus’ says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
So how do post-Easter people come to believe in the Risen Christ.
Many like the biblical Timothy learned from their mother or grandmother. Some from Sunday school teachers. They came as trusting children, not concerned about doctrines or the impossible nature of the resurrection. They learned of Jesus and believed what they were told and have never wavered from that faith. They may have had trials along the way, but nothing has ever overcome the faith so early at work in them. Fred Craddock once wrote: “For some faith is born and grows as quietly as a child sleeping on a grandmother’s lap.” If you are one of these, Blessed are YOU!
But Craddock continues, “For others faith is a lifetime of wrestling with angels.” Maybe this image describes you. Some of us are from Missouri; you must show us. It is Good News that Jesus did not write Thomas out of the list of disciples. Instead, The Risen Christ comes to him. We are not told whether Thomas actually touched Jesus. If anything, the scripture seems to say that he didn’t need that much after all. Jesus came to him in a way that was convincing. He gave Thomas what he needed to believe.
Do you need to see? Jesus says, “Ask and it will be given unto you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be open unto you.” Our Lord has ways to show himself and make himself known: in events that makes us marvel, in the majesty of creation but also in what we call answered prayers or miracles…in people, so changed, so holy, so obviously filled with the Spirit that we cannot deny the Risen Christ living in them. We see his glory in their faces and his touch in their actions.
I came to Christ from infancy, as one who was told the stories and loved them. While in college the preacher’s son and I taught a class for our peers in my home church. We started at the beginning. The first Sunday was the Creation. That very day, Walter declared there were two stories of creation in Genesis. I denied it but he insisted and said his dad would come to our class the next week and show me. He did and it punctured my Sunday school faith balloon. I went to seminary to see if I could hold a biblically based faith after all. It worked though it was a radical re-orientation. While there I was helped by the 20th century theologian Paul Tillich who wrote, “Faith and doubt are not opposites. Apathy is faith’s opposite. True faith encompasses doubt.” Doubt is only a dead end if it expects a negative answer and thus becomes antagonistic and walks away with hands thrown up. But doubt has potential; it has a least the seed of faith in it. There was an NFL draft commercial that circulated last week. Dak Prescott, the Cowboys quarterback seems to be speaking to Kyler Murray, the #1 pick this year. Dak a 135th pick whom people said was to small, to slow, not gifted enough. In the commercial he says “Doubt is a gift. It pushes you to a higher level.” Thomas wills to believe. He is a doubter but still a seeker. He seeks conviction and Jesus removes his doubt. He knows the prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief.”
How can we see the Risen Christ? I can only speak out of my experience.
I saw him in the joy of faith in my dying aunt’s young face and I have seen faith in the faces of many believers, who face illness and death.
I met Rudy Timm, who turned to Christ as an adult, whose story I heard, whose strength of faith I felt and whose saintly ways were visible to all. When I asked one year’s confirmation class to write down the name of the person in the congregation that most displayed Christian faith, everyone one of the twelve wrote Rudy. There are many “Rudys” out there. They are the saints of the church, aglow with Christ.
When I was anxious and frightened, a confused and fearfully alone young man, I prayed out of desperation into the darkness of the night and felt the calm of Christ come over me.
At the point of my life when I was most guilty of sin and thought had no hope of a future, I was in a retreat and during a directed prayer, I experienced Christ coming to me and giving me again his love and then had words of forgiveness spoken to me by one who didn’t even know my sin.
I have been in worship when Christ was present, his Spirit filled the space and all present knew the Lord was there.
If seeing is believing, when we believe we also see. A mother was fixing dinner and observed her husband chasing their young daughter around the table, to her squeals of delight and joy. They mother confessed, “Truly the Lord is in this place.”
If you have some of Thomas in you, “DON’T DESPAIR”. Christ has ways to make himself known that will convince. If may not ever come on Easter, it may be on a later Sunday, It may come when you come to the table, when you are given something physical and tangible, material and corporeal, bread and juice and you hold them in your hands and put them in your mouth and the presence of Christ fills you. It might be in your most despairing moment when suddenly you know you are not alone or at the moment of your first child’s birth and, in that joy, you can believe again in miracles. Maybe Christ will come to you in a human form, a believer in whose face and life you see the reality of the resurrection life.
It is hard to believe after Easter, but not impossible. It takes faith—walking, living, worshipping, trusting faithfully, practicing faith until your eyes are opened and you recognize the Risen Lord who has been walking, talking and being faithful to you all along. Don’t quit. Declare your faith and ask help for your doubts. Keep knocking until the door is opened.

04-21-19 (Easter) – JESUS IS ALIVE AGAIN


Luke 24: 1-12

Amid times of intense sorrow due to tragic deaths, terrible destructions, or fierce storms, people continue to look for signs that tell them they can hope again. Some of the stories have made the news, some haven’t. This week, nearly everyone around the world stopped what they were doing to listen to the descriptions or watch the pictures of the magnificent Notre Dame cathedral in Paris burning out of control. It seemed unbelievable. The scenes pulled at the souls of many to see the mighty spire become a torch, and then become a tumbling pile of embers. It broke people’s hearts to see the ceiling burning like a bonfire. Yet readers of Ken Follett’s magnificent novel The Pillars of the Earth would have learned why is character Tom Builder crafted a mighty cathedral to the glory of God, also using wood timbers in the towering ceiling to pull one’s eyes upward as the person entered. Other would-be builders tried to make a cathedral roof of stone with devasting collapses. The wood ceiling would hold, but the size was limited to the number of trees that were tall enough- generally 32 feet. Ken Follett wrote: “The nave [of the cathedral] was high, impossibly high. But a cathedral had to be a dramatic building, awe inspiring in its size, pulling the eye heavenward with its loftiness.” [Signet Books: New York 1989, p. 292] There is an Achilles heel to wood structures, and that is fire. Notre Dame, a classic cathedral, a seat of a bishop, crafted with flying buttresses for support, inspired people to think of God, but its structure was vulnerable to age, nature, sabotage, or accident. A fire ruined the cathedral in Ken Follett’s story, and the builder’s son set the fire. Fires burned down three predominately African American churches in Louisiana last month, and it is alleged that a deputy’s son set all three fires. Horrible. What is the link between a mighty cathedral and three smaller congregations with tragedies? What is the link between a city in Antioch, listed in the book of Acts, where followers of Jesus were first called “Christians?” The linchpin of all these stories, and churches and Christians, is the empty tomb of Easter! And the key word is hope. Hope appears through words, prayers, and sometimes signs. As evening turned to darkness in Paris as the fire continued to smolder, people wondered if the building was a total loss. Then as if by answer from heaven, the light from embers shone on the golden cathedral cross, still standing in place. People saw it, and it gave them hope. Do you remember a tornado that ripped through southern Mississippi on January 25th, 2017? Part of what the tornado hit was William Carey University. As staffers combed through the wreckage, they came upon a stunning scene: the college chapel was badly damaged, but in its center was a pulpit with an open Bible, apparently not disturbed. The Bible was open to a page where this could be read: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble.” [Psalm 46] Not every story of hope has a cross still standing or a Bible untouched. Some of you were here when this church structure was pounded by three hurricanes in 2004. The roofs leaked badly; ceiling tiles fell on pews near parishioners; Bibles and hymnals got ruined; repairs were made. But we had hope in part because of our Presbyterian connections: Disaster Assistance immediately sent us $10,000 toward repairs, and the Presbyterian Publishing House replaced our hymnals and our Bibles. And guess what we made our new ceiling out of? Yep not ceiling tiles; but wood! Wood like many other houses of worship great and small. Yes it calls for caution, but it also makes eyes rise upward to the glory of God: One organist who got two degrees from Notre Dame used to be the Associate Organist at First Presbyterian Church of Gainesville, Florida. He posted this on Tuesday, words from a Concordia Seminary professor:
Build beautiful churches, attend them, cherish them.
Build beautiful churches not because God needs such a house,
But because their beauty reminds us of God’s presence, and of his love.
Build beautiful churches, not boxes … not auditoriums with stages and
Coffee houses. Build beautiful churches to express the beauty of our Lord.
And if they should burn down, rebuild them, and fill them with your presence, With your prayers and songs, with God’s Word, with baptismal waters, …for these are the things that make a church truly beautiful. (Prof. Peter J. Scaer)

Today there is one event that ties this congregation, and a congregation in Paris, and congregations in Mississippi, and Louisiana, and Antioch and many other places together: it is the celebration of this day: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead! This was earth shattering news! People had not risen from the dead before. That news changed everything! People today all over the world are celebrating this one event that started Churches and Christianity; started Campus Crusade for Christ and Young Life; started Christian camps and conferences and mission trips. That resurrection was the catalyst for those! That event changed darkness into light; and hopeless into hope. The tomb, depicted here in our sanctuary, was near the cross of Golgotha where the body of Jesus was hurriedly placed since it was nearly the sabbath day when no burials could be conducted. His body was laid on a stone slab and women returned to anoint his body after the sabbath was over. A large stone had been moved over the entrance of the tomb after his body was placed there. One gospel even says that guards were posted outside for fear that disciples would steal his body. But his body was not stolen; it was raised bodily from the dead! The women found the stone rolled away and Luke says they saw two men there, and one of them asked them “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” Indeed. That day changed the course of history. Our whole dating system is based on the birth, life, and death of Jesus. If you allow yourself in the midst of sorrow, to look for signs of hope, you may indeed begin to be filled with hope again.

Don’t be ashamed if you doubt this story! Plenty of people have over the years! But a torrent of people has also tested the evidence, and have come to believe. Famously Lee Strobel, an atheist and an attorney educated at Yale Law School, set out to determine if there was enough evidence to believe the truth of Easter. He assembled scholars schooled at the major universities. They reached their conclusions and Strobel put them in his book, The Case for Christ, where he ended up making the case for Christ instead of against him! His conclusion: “The atheism I had embraced for so long buckled under the weight of historical truth. It was a stunning and radical outcome….” [Zondervan Publishing: Grand Rapids, 1998, p. 266]

Today I invite you to consider the findings of Lee Strobel and many others, and to acknowledge the uplifting power of hope and the withering weakness of hopelessness. Hope lifts our heads! Hope lifts our hearts! Hope says, “We can rebuild!” or “I can find a new job!” or “I can get through this.” In 2018 alone in Volusia and Flagler Counties, there were 112 fatal shooting. Of those 112 shootings, 89 were suicides! 89! People who saw no way out, who were despondent or hopeless. The gift of Easter was given so that we might have life, and have it abundantly! Let’s turn around the numbers of deaths, rebuild structures, and rebuild lives. We now serve a risen Savior! He lives! It is right to give our thanks and our praise.
Happy Easter! Now join me as we are transported to “the Holy City!”

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 21, 2019

04-14-19 JESUS IS GREETED WITH JOY!


Luke 19: 28-40

There are some condominiums I have been in along Atlantic Avenue that have windows that face east, and other windows that face west. Imagine having a camera set up in one of those condos, set with time lapse photography. Instead of a day taking 24 hours, now we will set it to just last an hour. At the beginning of this service, the sun will be coming up on a Jesus who is headed to Jerusalem, and the crowds around him sense excitement! “This is the one! This is the one who is coming in the name of the Lord! Save us!” they exclaim with their word “Hosanna.” So the sun rises on a group, growing in number, that begin making plans. Actually, it seems, plans have been made ahead of time according to what we read in Luke. One man put it this way:
Our Gospel reading for Palm Sunday begins like an espionage novel. Jesus draws two of his followers aside. He gives them this mission: “Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ just say this, “The Lord needs it.” The two disciples go and find the colt. The question is asked, and the password is given. The Lord needs it. It’s an odd beginning to an odd story. [Ron Adams, in the Christian Century, March 27, 2019, p. 18]

This plan must have some symbolic meanings. What grown man really chooses to ride a colt that has never been ridden before down a hill, riding not on a saddle, but on slippery garments? And the crowds are throwing cloaks on the ground in front of the colt? It seems like a recipe for disaster. But from what we know about Jesus, anything is possible, and this ride comes off without a hitch. (Returning to the time-lapse camera illustration: now the sun is up; birds are singing, a new day has begun, and all is right with the world. How do we know that?) In Psalm 19, David declares:
The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours fourth speech, and night to night declares knowledge….Their voice goes out to through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.”

Did you hear it? Just as God created the world in Genesis, not with a magic wand; nor with bare hands, but with speech; and breath, and Spirit, God said: “Let there be light, and there was light.” Creation was made by a holy invitation, and it was so! David has been taught, and passes on to his worship leaders, those words to be declared in their holy services; not just to be read with one’s eyes, but to be declared with one’s mouth: All nature speaks in praise of God! The rustling trees speak in praise of God! The babbling brook speaks in praise of God! God endowed nature, it seems, with the ability to offer praise by simply being, and exuding sound. David knew that as he said (beautifully captured in Haydn’s masterpiece of music, called ‘The Creation”) “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” And so they are. Jesus’ words no longer seem as strange, about stones talking, even though the Pharisees scolded Jesus about it. As the noise from the crowd grew louder and louder, they said: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” And Jesus, in his joy, said something that now makes perfect sense. At the beginning of that new day, with all its possibilities, Jesus said (and I’m reading it from the Phillips Modern Translation): “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very stones in the road would burst out cheering!” [Luke 19:40] Stones talking! Who besides God has ever suggested such a notion? I’ll tell you one person who mused about it: author Annie Dillard, who, when she wrote her book Teaching a Stone to Talk in 1992, R. Buckminster Fuller, wrote that she transcended “all other writers of our day.” Her descriptive powers ooze from the writings in her books. In the one I just mentioned, she wrote:
The island where I live is peopled with cranks like myself. In a cedar-shake shack on a cliff … is a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk. Wisecracks on this topic abound, as you might expect, but they are made as it were perfunctorily, and mostly by the young. For in fact, almost everyone here respects what Larry is doing, as do I …..It is, in fact, I assure you, a stone. It is—for I have seen it—a palm sized oval beach cobble whose gray is cut by a band of white….He keeps it on a shelf.
[HarperPerinnial, 1992, p.

I read this book years ago, but this week I was reminded of it again. Would we wisecrack about God teaching all nature to sing? Today, can we believe, perhaps in a new way and with a higher consciousness, that “Jesus is right! The stones could cry out!” All nature is ready to praise in this orchestrated, almost espionage story in Luke’s Gospel; a grown man actually sits on and rides a colt never ridden on by anyone else and urges the animal to precariously walk down a hillside. Disciples and curious onlookers join the cries. Perhaps they had hope in Jesus, or perhaps they just loved upsetting the Pharisees. On that Palm Sunday long ago, a man rode toward Jerusalem on a colt instead of a steed, and stones were ready to talk! Or perhaps on this day, our ears and hearts are uniquely open to hearing them! Would they say a word? Would they sing? Would the wind rustle by them causing people to hear something like “Blessed! Blessed! Blessed?”

This is a day of real possibilities as the sun starts to head toward noon. For after all of this unbridled celebration, Jesus comes near Jerusalem, and he stops, and he weeps, not for joy, but for sorrow. There is an historic marker on that hill even to this day. Jesus wished that the city, the name of which means “City of Peace,” would know the things that make for peace. I wonder if Jesus looks at Jerusalem today, or even at our nation today, and still weeps, saying, “If only today you knew the things that make for peace.”

The joy of that first Palm Sunday morning got blanketed with human darkness; of suspicion; of name calling. Jesus sealed his own fate when he then turned over the tables of the moneychangers just before the biggest annual weekend for the city. The handwriting was on the wall; and darkness began to fill the hearts of men who started plotting against Jesus. Today, I wonder if a Jesus who still wants peace for Israel, America, and other nations is still weeping, in part because he can no longer hear stones cry out, or nature singing. The still small voice of God, described in 1 Kings 19 is being drowned out by the cacophony of crowd noises, and mobs, and neighbors shouting at neighbors. God is still speaking, as is the creation. But some aren’t listening for God’s words. And some just can’t hear nature singing or speaking anymore. They have given up hope of hearing from God in our world of pain. But God and nature were there on Palm Sunday two thousand years ago; and God speaks still. The great mysteries of God are ours to consider, but to never fully explain or understand. Listen to what Billy Collins—the United States poet laureate from 2001 -2003—said about one of the classic mysteries of the divine:
Of all the questions you might want to ask about angels, the only one you ever hear is how many can dance on the head of a pin. No curiosity about how they pass the eternal time besides circling the Throne, chanting in Latin or delivering a crust of bread to a hermit on earth, …. Do they fly through God’s body and come out singing? …What are their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, their diet of unfiltered divine light? What goes on inside those luminous heads? [Sailing Around the Room, Random House, New York, 2001, p.

This week, this morning, there is joy! Even creation feels it! But like other situations in life, things are changing. The sun is setting on Jesus’ joy. What a drama! This week, as this day grows darker, will you join Jesus on his journey?

Let us pray: We move into this week Lord, from a procession to a cross. In a sense, we will go with you. A visit to the upper room, and to Calvary, has changed people’s lives for generations. Perhaps it will change people again this week. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 14, 2019

04-07-19 JESUS HAS HIS FEET ANOINTED


John 12: 1-8

It’s no secret that with my hobby of collecting ocean liner and cruise ship memorabilia, Mary Ann and I like to take cruises. I like to get away from the phone and stretch out on a deck chair and watch the sea. Perhaps you like that too. In terms of extravagance, we’ve been pretty ordinary. Our first cruise was in an ocean view cabin for our 10th wedding anniversary. We kept getting ocean view rooms until our 25th anniversary when I treated Mary Ann to a cruise from San Diego (Oceanside, CA is her home town) through the Panama Canal (the canal zone was her Junior High home) all the way to Florida. For that cruise, going through the canal, I paid for a balcony cabin. Of course after that, we never went back to an ocean view cabin again! We got used to the open air of a balcony. One time we asked our travel agent to book a cruise on the Carnival Dream for a summer vacation. The surprise for us was we were given an aqua spa cabin for the price of a regular one! The room had special shampoos and lotions and robes to walk out our door directly into the spa, where there were aromatherapy rooms, whirlpools, warm ceramic lounge chairs, spring waters flavored with either oranges or cucumbers, saunas, steam rooms, and more: all included! We even had a special dining room where we could eat our meals. Plus free room service for breakfast. We hardly saw the rest of the ship!

My point is that when I’ve been given the gift of some pampering—without high cost— I’ve have enjoyed it. Today in our passage I’ve tried to imagine what Jesus faced over the early weeks of his ministry. Listen to this: according to John, Jesus recruited and called his disciples, attended a wedding at Cana where he changed water into wine, cleansed the Temple where he met great resistance, talked to religious leader Nicodemus about being “born again,” traveled through the “no man’s land” of Samaria where he met a woman at a well and turned her into one of his many evangelists, healed an official’s son, healed an invalid at the pool of Bethsesda, fed 5000 people, walked on water, was regularly interrogated by scribes and Pharisees, decided what to do with a woman accused of adultery, foretold his own death, explained to people how he was the good shepherd, razed his friend Lazarus from the dead, and wept with Mary, Lazarus’ sister. Finally, Jesus also learned of a plot to kill him. I’m thinking Jesus could have used an aqua spa cabin about then, or at least a touch of pampering for his wounded psyche, tired feet, or aching body! “Six days before the Passover” John 12 tells us “Jesus returned to the home of his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.” I’m imagining he needed some down time before the demands of Passover. So many times we hear about a person called “a sinful woman” coming into the home of a Pharisee and wiping Jesus feet with costly oil and with her hair. This is not that event. Today Jesus is in the home of friends, with his disciples. Although he would not have asked for it, to have a kind—and even extravagant—gesture done for him must have been welcomed. He clearly cared for this Mary and her siblings very much. It is not his mother, Mary nor Mary Magdalene- there are so many Marys in the New Testament! This one—his friend—compassionately and generously took a pound of very costly oil, a kind of perfume like spikenard or myrrh, and washed Jesus’ feet over and over with it, likely in a messaging, caring way. The fragrance filled the room. I can imagine our tired Lord perhaps sighing with joy and closing his eyes to such loving care. In this story, Mary’s kind pampering is only interrupted by the man who continually interrupted Jesus’ hopes for living out his last days. He was Judas Iscariot: a disciple who was thinking with his head and not his heart. John points out the Judas “was the one who was about to betray him.” Judas starts yammering about how much money Mary is wasting, even as Jesus was likely grateful for the lavish and extravagant gift of a special friend messaging his tired feet. Finally Jesus speaks, and I imagine he’d rather have just sat there for his foot message, but Judas cuts the loving atmosphere with accusations. Jesus musters up new energy and says: “Leave her alone.” That’s all I think he wanted to say. But to guide his listeners he added, “She bought that jar for my burial.” In a way, instead of using the myrrh—or nard—on his dead body, she chose to use it on his living body. What a wonderful idea. I think Jesus was most grateful for it. And perhaps we too might think about gifts we can give while friends or family members are alive, rather than spending money on flowers and memorials when they are dead. I know some of you have done that. Good job! Spend your money on special people in special ways; if you do it while you are alive, you can hopefully see the smiles it brings and the good it does. My parents gave yearly gifts to my brother and sisters once we were grown, and they got to hear how we enjoyed the money for some needed repairs or relaxation. They also gave money to help our children get through college. Wow. Extravagant gifts are remembered.

When my friend Radford met with me this last Wednesday, he said “one of my main purposes here is to see that you get a total day off on Mondays.” I teared up ia little nside. He gets it; he knows how pastors burn the candle at both ends. What a generous and extravagant gift I’m getting from one who knows how important one day off a week is. Give thanks for those who give to you in extravagant ways. I do.
Let us pray:
Extravagant God, who gave us your whole world as a gift, with running waters, tall mountains, and lush pastures: remind us how to cherish nature and those who appreciate us. Teach us the joy of giving to others generously. In Jesus’ name, who one day, in a friend’s house, had the extravagance of fragrant oil massaged into his tired feet. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner April 7, 2019

03-31-19 JESUS’ STORY ABOUT BEING LOST

JESUS’ STORY ABOUT BEING LOST

Luke 1-3a; 11b-32

For many years now I have urged people to have a will; a simple will is inexpensive and can save a family from many heartaches. If you die with no will—even if you think you are healthy and too young to die—the state has a set formula that describes how your assets will be used. If you go to a lawyer and say, “But she told me all the time who she wanted to have that money” you are wasting your breath. The state still decides. I posted the state rules on our Congregational Life Bulletin board; with one glance I hope you will run to your attorney to create a will, or we have an attorney in the church that can help you with that! Have a will! Back in the day when Jesus told his parable of the lost son, did you know that there was a system set by Jewish custom that prescribed which child got what part of the father’s estate? If the oldest son was an angel or a hooligan, he still got a double portion of his father’s estate when the father died; in the case of the Luke 15 story, the older son would have gotten 2/3 of the father’s possessions. The younger son got the other 1/3. That was how it was done, no matter if they were wonderful or horrid to their father.  And we know one other thing: in the Old Testament—particularly in the book of Genesis—there were some examples of terrible parenting. The father always seemed to love one son more—and the Bible even said so—and in some cases the mother loved a different son more! Check out the story in Genesis 25: Isaac loved Esau who was legitimately his first-born son; the twin son born right after him was Jacob.  By law, Esau received the birthright. It was irrefutable, except it could be sold or traded by that son. Everyone knew that: even his wife Rebekah. The birthright son got a double-portion of the estate, remember?  But younger brother Jacob caught his older brother in a moment of weakness and Esau agreed to see him birthright for a bowl of lentil stew!  What a foolish agreement.  And there was no buyer’s remorse rule; it was done! Jacob got 2/3s of his father’s estate by buying the birthright from his brother who was older by a minute.  Then Rebekah schemed with her son Jacob to trick her nearly blind husband into blessing Jacob instead and giving him Esau’s blessing. Such is one of the most sordid family stories in Genesis!

One more piece of background before addressing Jesus’ parable: the late Dr. Edwin Friedman was the master of what psychologists call “Family Systems.” He was in Daytona Beach in February of 1994 and I attended his lectures. He said clearly that if one child in a family develops certain traits and skills, a second child—even a twin—develops complimentary traits and skills, not identical ones. He also said if parents clearly made it apparent that one son, or one daughter was the apple of their eyes, the other children in the family would immediately sense it and react to it. One of the typical reactions would be rebellion; a tendency to do things to get into trouble; or they could latch onto peers instead of parents; or experiment with drinking and drugs.  Dr. Friedman was unequivocal in his assessment. You can ponder your own experiences with your children or grandchildren as I go on.

In the background of Jesus’ parable would have been two very safe assumptions: 1) The older son is very loved and appreciated. Even in our brief story we find the son declaring to his father: “These many years I have served you and never disobeyed you.”  He is the apple of his father’s eye. And our second assumption is: 2) That he will receive the birthright- the double-portion of his father’s estate; and it’s safe to assume he has already received his father’s blessing. So perhaps this son has not gone through many situations that drew his father’s attention away from him. Could he be spoiled? Does he act sanctimonious around his younger brother? Out in the field he’s filled with anger.  I hope this Jesus story gives food for thought about your own family of origin—to consider where you were in the birth order, and what might or might not have been expected of you. The story also may inform the way you—and your children if you have any—interact.

We don’t know the backstory of your family, any more than we know the backstory of Luke 15. All we know is what happens: 1) We know in verse 11 that this father had two sons, not three, not just one. 2) We know that in verse 12 the younger son said something considered utterly disrespectful to his father; we don’t know what provoked it, whether it was his brother, or his friends, or his attitude, but in Luke 15:12 the Younger son SAID, did not ask: “Father, give me the share of the property that falls to me.” Middle Eastern expert Kenneth Bailey said this about that confrontation: “The younger son requests his inheritance while his father is still alive and in good health! In traditional Middle Eastern culture, this means the prodigal cannot wait for his father to die….If the father is a traditional Middle Eastern parent, he will strike the boy across the face and drive him out of the house. [Jacob and the Prodigal, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2003, p.99.]  The father could have reacted with a huge ranting outburst: how many fathers today do that to outrageous requests from their children?  The father could have walked a way. The father could have said “Let me think about it; I’ll give you my answer in the morning.” But no; this father went through his financial reserves, and perhaps estimated how much that son would get as a third of his ranch and his home, and he gave it to him, in gold or shekels, as if the father were dead. It was an audacious request. I don’t know all the fathers here today, but this one in Luke 15 bends over backwards for his family. Is he a pushover or just generous, or just gracious?  Could he have thought that the son will learn a valuable life lesson about getting lots of money in a short time?  I have known a young man who had the finest computers, the finest Lexus, and the finest clothes that his mother gave him after his father died when he was a teenager. I knew him when he was in his 20s. He lived like a prince. Several years later I saw him again. He was driving a used Toyota and living in a modest apartment. “What happened to what you had?” I asked him. “I lost it all,” he admitted. “I didn’t make enough money to afford them.”  His gift from his dad had dried up. In our story, the father’s gift seems to dry up even quicker, like the way some people who have received lottery winnings. He not only ended up with no money, his dream of living the good life went up in smoke.  To rub salt in his wounds Jesus, says he was so hungry he took a job feeding swine; pigs; an animal considered unclean by Jews. This was rock bottom, right? No.  Rock bottom was when he considered eating pig food! I have known people who are so, so poor, but they refuse to give up their pets, even though they themselves need to eat. Some of them, in their desperation, actually eat the dog food or cat food they have bought for their pets. It is a foolish and sickening decision.  That’s where this young man was: desperate.

You should know that by Jewish rights, the father did not have to take a son that treated him like that back into the family.  Do you also know that the townspeople where that ranch or farm was located would back up the father when they learned of the son’s act of insolence? Most farms were part of a village of about 6 acres, and such an act would “spread all over town.” The boy seemed oblivious to what he had asked, but he left town in a hurry before townspeople could get to him. “What would they do?” you might ask. 

Dr. Bailey tells us:

In the Jerusalem Talmud and elsewhere in the writings of the sages, we are told that at the time of Jesus, the Jews had a method of punishing any Jewish boy who lost his family inheritance to Gentiles. Such a loss was considered particularly shameful….To discourage any thought of committing the heinous offense, the community developed what was called the kezazah ceremony….Fellow villagers would fill a large earthenware pot with burned nuts and burned corn and break it in front of the guilty individual.  While doing this, they would shout “So-and-so is cut off from his people!” From that point on, the village would have nothing to do with that hapless lad.  [p. 102]

Before the young man got a word out of his mouth as he is returning to his father, the father ran to his son—something no Middle Eastern man would ever do in robes. He did it to deflect attention from his ragged son coming home over the horizon. Then he kisses his son before the son has a chance to share his practiced speech about making him a hired servant. By doing that, the father indicated to the community that the two of them had reconciled, even though no such action had yet taken place. The father threw his reputation, his dignity, and his honor to the wind for his son. I know many parents who would do anything for their son or daughter. We have too. And yet, sometimes our child gets on our last nerve. Today I want you to imagine that you are the prodigal—or can you? Can you only imagine being the older son? I almost always identify with the older son: my place in the family line up. So the lesson I have always had to learn comes from the words of the father, offered to his fuming son: “Son,” he said, “you are always with me, and everything I have us yours! But it was fitting that we celebrated; for I thought your brother was dead, but he’s alive! He was lost, but now he’s found.” That’s always the message of grace and mercy I need. Who knows when I, and maybe you, need someone to welcome us home?

Let us pray:

Like a Father who welcomes a prodigal child home, remind us, O God, about the power of reconciliation and reunion, safe in your arms. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           March 31, 2019