12-03-17 WATCH

WATCH

Mark 13: 24-37

 

Some of you will remember the game show “The $25,000 Pyramid hosted by Dick Clark. A celebrity guest was paired up with an ordinary contestant who hoped to win money on the show. Money would mostly be won by answering questions within a period of time. Here is an example of the clues:  A Heinz Ketchup bottle; a baby to be born; a train, a red light.  Okay constants! What is the answer? Yes! “Things you wait for.” Here’s another one: A pot to boil; Jesus’ return; a child out past curfew. What’s the answer? Yes! “Things you watch for!”  Watching and waiting are two of the hardest things for many people to do, so certain facilities, such as hospitals and doctor’s offices, have rooms, with groups of people in them. The rooms are called: “waiting rooms!” In a waiting room I have seen people pace, sigh, study their phone, play games on their phone, read a book or magazine, walk back and forth to a coffee pot, bathroom, or vending machine and more, but just sitting and waiting few do well. We generally want to do be doing something. In the old days, a husband at a farmhouse was often told to go boil water while a doctor was tending to his wife about to deliver a child. It might have been slightly helpful, but mostly it gave the anxious father something to do! Here is what Mary Ann said when I asked her about the birth of our first child, Christopher.

 

October 2, 1980.  The day was circled on the calendar.  The day my first child would enter the world.  Nine months of shopping, assembling, doctor appointments, growing larger – waiting!

I was going to work until the baby arrived.  Everything was ready at the end of September. My good friend, Teri, was due to have her baby the week after mine and we rejoiced as we got ready and as we slowed down waiting for the impending births.  October 2 I woke up with great expectation.  Today is the day.  The baby had other plans.  I kept going to work.  I kept answering the phone calls from relatives – “any news???”.  I kept smiling as my neighbors and co-workers exclaimed, “You’re still here!!!”  October 9 came and Teri had her baby.  I visited her at the hospital feeling depressed and wondering when it would be my turn.  More waiting. We lived in New Jersey and it got cold and none of my shoes or coats would fit.  Still heading to work feeling like an elephant.  More waiting.  Frustration abounded.  I’m sure I cried a few times.  Finally, on October 22, I started feeling the labor pangs and we headed to the hospital.  Christopher entered the world on the 23rd – a full three long weeks late.  I can still feel that frustration that I felt during that time.  It was totally worth the wait.  Maybe I have learned some patience from that experience!  A p.s. to the story – I didn’t have to wait as long for Matt and Jenny – they both came 9 days early!

 

Many find it difficult to wait and watch for anything! And on top of that, we have trouble just being, don’t we? We want to be doing. A man retires from a lifetime career. He is more attached than he realized to doing his job. Suddenly there is no job to do; at least not that job.  Can he just be, resting in a job well done, retirement income, and time for things that got pushed aside before? Or will he need something to do? It’s a hard adjustment for many. Women also can go through that when they leave a career or have the last child leave the house. Just being is difficult. Yet in Psalm 46:10 we read:  “Be still, and know that I am God.”  God still has plans for your life, even if you don’t see them. And sometimes the plan is “wait.” “Really Lord? I’m terrible at waiting? Can’t you give me something to do?”

 

At this time of the year we are asked to wait; and to watch.  Through the eyes of a child we are only waiting and watching for another 22 days, which, of course, is Christmas, but it feels like an eternity to them! But what about the times when the prophets preached, and the people heard things like: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name ‘Immanuel’” Isaiah declared that in chapter 7, verse 14. Isaiah proclaimed his message from 742-687 B.C! That’s over 700 years before Christ was born! Sometimes salvation seems to take an eternity. Sometimes God’s response seems to appear slower than ketchup or steak sauce from a bottle. What about “For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given?” Same prophet; same timeframe. Musicians, theologians, writers, and even pastors can compress the time, so that waiting doesn’t seem so unreasonable.  But babies, and trains, and leaves changing color and people on walkers can hardly be rushed. They are life lessons to us all: to gain some patience; to wait; and to be. Being is the state when we realize that we are loved by God by who we are, not what we have done. Look at newborn children. They can do nothing like to help with the dishes, change diapers, change sheets, or prepare food. The blessing that is a baby is being. We start in a fetal position and we may end our life in a fetal position with God like a caring mother or father, not cherishing our accomplishments, but cherishing the ways we are made in God’s image. God loves to see that in us.

 

There is another group of people who do not wait well: people who say they can read prophecies and tell when the Son of man will return. They are poor waiters, and so they predict when they need to just be in heaven’s waiting room.  Even Jesus saw such people when he was living on earth. He named their predictions and he saw what they saw. But at the end, of all the predictions that have been made, listen to Jesus’ response:

If anyone says to you ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is,” do not believe it. False Christs and false prophets will arise and show you signs and wonders, to lead the elect astray if possible….But in those days … when the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give light, and stars begin to fall from heaven … they will see the  Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory….But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son; only the Father. Take heed, therefore, and watch, for you do not know when that time will come. [Mark 13: 21-33]

 

Who knew our earth’s fate was to be the waiting room for seeing Christ? In this waiting room, we watch; some work who are of able body and mind; and some just wait. Every one of those activities is important, but not easy.

The Irish avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett penned the intriguing two act play “Waiting for Godot.” It is staged very sparsely with one bare tree and two tramps in bowler hats.  Sparknotes include this summary of the plot:

 

Two men, Vladimir and Estragon, meet near a tree. They converse on various topics and reveal that they are waiting there for a man named Godot. While they wait, two other men enter. Pozzo is on his way to the market to sell his slave, Lucky. He pauses for a while to converse with Vladimir and Estragon. Lucky entertains them by dancing and thinking, and Pozzo and Lucky leave.

After Pozzo and Lucky leave, a boy enters and tells Vladimir that he is a messenger from Godot. He tells Vladimir that Godot will not be coming tonight, but that he will surely come tomorrow. Vladimir asks him some questions about Godot and the boy departs. After his departure, Vladimir and Estragon decide to leave, but they do not move as the curtain falls.

The next night, Vladimir and Estragon again meet near the tree to wait for Godot. Lucky and Pozzo enter again, but this time Pozzo is blind and Lucky is dumb [mute]. Pozzo does not remember meeting the two men the night before. They leave and Vladimir and Estragon continue to wait.

Shortly after, the boy enters and once again tells Vladimir that Godot will not be coming. He insists that he did not speak to Vladimir yesterday. After he leaves, Estragon and Vladimir decide to leave, but again they do not move as the curtain falls, ending the play.

 

 

 

Watching and waiting for Christ will not be like waiting for Godot. Christ will come. But in the meantime, life goes on: with conversations, with tragedies, with encounters with strangers, and with messengers.  Like a sparsely staged play, if your life were a play, would it largely take place in a living room, or on a road; in an office or in a care center? And if you were the director of your own play, how would you stage your life, waiting for the return of Christ?

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                 December 3, 2017

 

11-26-17 CHRIST IS KING!

CHRIST IS KING!

Ephesians 1: 15-23; Matthew 25: 31-36

 

I plan to take people from this congregation for a final time to the Holy Land on July 9, 2019. The first time I took a group was in February of 1998, almost 20 years ago! I keep going back not just because it’s where Jesus was born and performed miracles, but because I also saw evidence of why Jesus is called “Christ” and “King of kings!” I was moved when I saw the empty tomb, an I imagined what it was like to have Peter and Mary and the others peer inside and find no body! Wow! He is a “Risen Savior!” He really is King of kings and Lord of lords as Handel put to music in his masterpiece “Messiah.” Jesus’ fateful journey started on a cross at Golgotha. You can see Golgotha outside of the walls of Jerusalem, even today. Churches around the world have crosses; sometimes they are silver, sometimes gold, and sometimes wood. Sometimes they are plain and other times ornate. They can be at the top of steeples, on walls or tables, or on a necklace around one’s neck. The cross, no doubt, is most recognizable symbol of Christianity. But the cross symbolizes an event that brutally ended one’s life. One person once said he could not imagine people wearing little electric chairs around their neck to remember someone who was put to death. Yet the cross is our symbol because the cross was not the end of Jesus! His body was lovingly taken down, placed in a gifted tomb, and he arose from the dead! He was alive again—the Christ—the King! Still, there is another way to say you are a Christian than with a cross. It is the fish!  Early Christians used that symbol in secret, because living a Christian life was difficult. If a Christian came up to another person and wasn’t sure the other was a Christian, the first one would nonchalantly draw an arc on the ground with a foot as they were engaged in conversation. If the other person was not a Christian, the gesture would be meaningless. If the other one was a Christian, their foot would draw a second overlapping arc in the dust of the ground, creating the sign of the fish like I described to in today’s Children’s Sermon. The sign of the fish—a reminder of the man who called us to be fishers of men—of people—is another symbol for people who call Jesus Christ. It sets apart Christians from non-Christians. But wouldn’t it be nice for buildings and bumper stickers to have depictions of an empty tomb, the main sign that God was doing something big? That is a great symbol! But we use crosses, maybe because an empty tomb is hard to depict. On that first Holy Land trip, our group went to the Garden Tomb next to the place of the skull called “Golgotha” in Hebrew, or “Calvary” in Latin. The life-changing event that Jesus gave was not just that he died for us. That is noble, and it is sacrificial, but it is not unique. People have died protecting our country or protecting their family. The unique, life-changing event that happened to Jesus was that he came back from being dead! Three days dead! Rising from the dead is called resurrection! That Sunday morning, the tomb was empty and Christ had risen from the dead! That is, I believe, the most important and unique aspect of our faith.  Sometimes the world gets it wrong. The story is told of a new boy coming up for a children’s sermon one Sunday. That pastor asked, “What do you think happened when Jesus came out of that tomb?” That new little boy thought and timidly answered, “He saw his shadow and there were six more weeks of winter?”  On the other extreme, there were some disbelievers who have suggested that Jesus’ followers stole his body to make it seem like Jesus’ predictions came true. That is known as “The Stolen Body Hypothesis. But Matthew 27 records that the Pharisees were afraid just such a think would happen, so they asked Pontius Pilate to allow them to guard the tomb. Pilate agreed. There was no robbery of that tomb.

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The apostle Paul wrote about the resurrection in his letter to the Ephesians, to solidify their faith, and to answer the questions of seekers. In chapter 1, verse 20 and the following he declares that “Christ was raised from the dead and was directed to sit at the right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come; and [God] has put all things under his feet and made him head over all things for the church.”

 

One Easter, the late William Sloan Coffin preached this:

[After] 2000 years … it looks more like a Good Friday than an Easter world. In totalitarian countries, politicians have yet to hear [as Pilate heard] “You are not Caesar’s friend,” and away they fall like autumn leaves, while in more democratic countries, politicians seek to minimize their responsibilities, washing their hands and thereby plaiting the crown of thorns. Like Peter, most of us follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. As for the majority of citizens, are they not like the crowd that gathered at Calvary, not to cheer the crucifixion, but also not to protest it? Failing to realize that compassion without confrontation is hopelessly sentimental, the people go home, beating their breasts, preferring guilt to responsibility. (W.S. Coffin, “Easter and Forgiveness”)

 

We are not filled with the new life Jesus offers if we just use the church to be sprinkled with water, sprinkled with rice, or sprinkled with dirt. There is more to church than rituals and more to Christ than prayer. What a difference there is between being a Christian through rituals, and being a Christian because you are doing what Jesus would do! We can become his hands, feet, and heart! We can actually feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, and help the homeless find a home or work alongside of them building it! We could fulfill Matthew 25! For some, that means putting legs on their faith. We in Volusia County, and even in this congregation, have opportunities to do any of those activities; to do what Jesus would do. If you are unable to do those things, then you can support the missionaries and outreach programs of our church so you can do them through someone else. Or come next Sunday to our Christmas Market and buy a gift of mission, empowering someone else to be the hands, feet, and heart of Christ for the world.

 

Let me close with these thoughts by Dr. Bill Carl, Professor of Homiletics and President of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary:

Christianity is not merely a religion that was marketed well with just the right political spin by gifted writers. It is a living, breathing, ongoing conversation with God, humanity, and all creation, empowered by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without the resurrection, there would have been no Christianity, no Christendom, no hymns, no seminaries, no churches, and no nativity scenes. Jesus lives, not in the sense that King Lear or Hamlet or [even] Handel’s Messiah live on in the hearts and minds of people, but in the sense that something totally new has happened and keeps happening [!] The resurrection is the ultimate breakthrough of God into our world that transcends all nature and history!”

 

By God’s will and action, Jesus arose from the dead! His name is above every other name! And Jesus Christ is truly King of kings and Lord of lords! If he is Lord of your life, as he is of mine, don’t just say it; let your life and your actions reflect it.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  November 26, 2017

 

11-19-17 THE REASON WHY

The Reason Why

It was the day August 17, 1960, four men leave on a journey that would be the start of one of, if not the most influential bands in the world.  They would play on and off in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962.  The first time they played in Hamburg they played forty-eight nights straight and by the time they were done in 1962, they had started to hone their ability and showmanship on stage; These skills would achieve them a recording contract; a contract that would take them to a greatness that they never knew they could have.  One that they all sought, but that only through perseverance faith and trust, would they achieve.

In the year 354 a man that is known as an early North African Christian theologian and philosopher, whose writings went on to influence Western Christianity and Western Philosophy to this day was born.  He believed that the Grace of Christ was indispensable to a human’s freedom.  He is said to be of influence to such Christians as the Calvinists and Lutherans; and is also thought of as one of the main influences and theological fathers of the Protestant Reformation due to his teachings on salvation and divine grace.  His thoughts profoundly influenced the medieval worldview. The segment of the Church that adhered to the concept of the Trinity as defined by the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Constantinople [8] closely identified with Augustine’s On the Trinity He tells a story in his autobiography, The Confessions. He remembers that he did not steal the fruit because he was hungry, but because “it was not permitted.”[41] His very nature, he says, was flawed. ‘It was foul, and I loved it. I loved my own error—not that for which I erred, but the error itself.”[41] From this incident he concluded the human person is naturally inclined to sin, and in need of the grace of Christ.”

Oswald Chambers a Scottish preacher of the eighteen and 19 hundreds, that served as a chaplain to the YMCA and also in World War one writes this in the back ground to the scripture 1 Corinthians 10:31  whatever you do, do all to the glory of GodThe true test of a saint’s life is not successfulness but faithfulness on the human level of life. We tend to set up success in Christian work as our purpose, but our purpose should be to display the glory of God in human life, to live a life “hidden with Christ in God” in our everyday human conditions (Colossians 3:3). Our human relationships are the very conditions in which the ideal life of God should be exhibited.  Does everything we do glorify the Lord?

One of my classes in Seminary was on mission and ministry development.  The basis of it seemed to be simple; find motivating ways to develop the mission and ministry of the Church and all that that entailed.  The day came, and we started the class; the readings seemed light and the class seemed easy.  A couple of days into the class after reading the opening chapter of the book.  I started to read the next chapter.  What I read stimmed me; stopped me dead in my tracks.  It was stated so truthfully so evident as I had never heard before, “It is not our ministries who make Christ present, it is the present living Christ that makes our ministries alive.”  It’s nothing that I, we or us, do to make Christ alive, the Christ is the reason we are.  I had been looking at it the wrong way.  A better way to say it might be who came first me or Jesus.  This made me think.  It made me reform again as we are called to do; to form and reform; again, and again; as the Church; in the Church; the living church.  The problem was me; I still had power; I still thought for some odd reason I did something; I hadn’t fully realized true grace.  The true grace that Paul was speaking of. (the reason why) A grace that is formed through reliance; A total reliance; a reliance that does not come from anything we do; but a reliance that is built on the true faith of the Christ; in the Christ; and through the Christ; for all the Son of man did and does for us all day every day in our lives.  A reliance that is not a hard yoke to have but had only through the practice of Love and faith.  This yoke is made for all of us, all of us to have. “To participate in Christs ministry means that we share in his life.”  We are alive and acting in the Christ in all we do.  What does that mean; that means the Christ is alive in us; (The reason Why) that those two sets of footprints have become one, that there is no more me alone; no more you alone; that you don’t even have to try to feel him, he’s already there.  He’s been there the whole time!!  This has been said many ways; many times, as it is spoken in the Bible, yelled from the mountaintops, and whispered to you at night when your asleep.  This calling is for us not to be concerned of when the time is for the coming of the Lord; but to know that everything is going to be ok.  To know that it was always going to be ok; no matter what. This knowing, this confidence of course is faith.  A faith that is shown to us by our father in the love and grace he showed to us through the coming of the reason why’ Jesus the Christ.  A faith that we can emulate as we are shown to emulate the actions of our Lord and Savior.

In looking back at the first reading today, we have to look at the Old Testament to get a better grasp.  In the old testament the conception of the Day of the Lord is quite common and all the pictures and ideals that go along with the day of the Lord has been attached to the second coming.  All time was divided into two ages.  There was this present age which was wholly and incurably bad. Then there was the age to come which would be the golden age of God.  In between these times was known as the day of the Lord which would be a terrible day.  It would be a day in which one world was shattered and another was born.  Even though the writers of the New Testament paralleled this idea with the second coming of Jesus the Christ;  Jesus himself said that no one had any idea when that would be except God.  Who are we to be God?  This scripture goes on to say that we are called to be the church; to be upright in all our endeavors and to encourage others to do the same.  As it reads in 1st Thessalonians verse nine “For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ and in verse 11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”  This is not a sentence of death as the second coming of the Lord but more as reason to live and live on in the grace of the Christ.  This grace seems to flow through all us, living and breathing in us as the Holy Spirit.  That there is no concern, but to be, to do and to live in this grace so freely given to us by our Lord and savior.  The power of what we are.  This glorification of God.  The Glorification of all that God is; to live in the Christ. As the baptized actions of Love.  The Love that is eternal; divine; pure; the truth the way and the life. The reason why!!

 

Recently I ministered at a celebration of life for two men that I have known for a number of years that recently passed away.  When it came to the time of others sharing about the two men as always it was awkward, at first, for someone to approach the Pulpit, but as the first person came and spoke of the men, then it became easier for the others.  They spoke of them as saints.  As people that went out of their way, beyond themselves to be of service to others.  These were not men that practiced a Godly life, or even dressed the part. But they were men that went out of their way to serve others.  They served to the best of their ability, that others may be shown the same Love that they were shown.  That Love that surpasses all things; Gods love.  They took their lives and their work in a Godly way.  As Court liaisons they helped men in trouble with the law find ways to start over.  From the long term incarcerated to first time offenders they helped men to become alive again. To live again; as we are called in the same manner to live again, no matter what age, no matter who we are to live again every day.  fresh and new in the Christ.  In the living baptism of the Christ.

In the year 1873, on the day of January 2, in Alençon, France A baby was born to the parents, Marie-Azélie Guérin and Louis Martin.  Marie and Louis were normal parents that lived a good life that wanted their children to live that same life.  They were very devout and as soon as their young daughter was baptized she saw the greatness of God.  She was, as it was said, to become empty of all that she was and to become filled with the Christ.  That there was nothing left of her only him.  This was a total commitment she made to God; to Gods love and to become that love more and more for the rest of her life.  She became a Carmelite nun and lived on to be the action of the Christ in all that she did.  She died at a young age from tuberculosis, but because of the life she led she was never forgotten.  She lived out her vocation to the fullest not because she was scared of the end, but because she was; she was alive; reborn again and again.  Even when she  was sick and knew she was dying she never flinched in service to the novices she served or to any other of her duties.  This service, as she is known for coining the Phrase “ The Little way”  was not anything that was seen by many; and even in some people’s views, looked down upon as weak.  But in her heart she knew she had been called.  Called as all of us are called; To be the best we can be at what we are and who we are; the best at what our callings are.

This is our Thanksgiving; our thanksgiving to God.. The definition of thanksgiving, of course besides the day that is always on a Thursday and is celebrated by eating way to much and suffering from the reality of tryptophan, which was always my fathers excuse for napping after Dinner, no matter whether we ate turkey or not, is actually defined as “the expression of gratitude, especially to God.”  This seems to bring this celebration to a new light.  As gratitude is defined as  “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.” Thanksgiving seems to be built around love, the action of God and all that God is.  To glorify him in all we do; as the people I spoke of earlier that led their lives no matter whether they knew it or not in this glorification of God.

This celebration of gratitude is a celebration of life itself in everything we do and everything we are.  The action of Jesus glorified in us; through us in all our actions to be the best we can be at what ever it is we are called to be. The reason why

Matthew 25, our second reading today, seems to solidify this Godly action of Thanksgiving.  More than that it shows us the great adventure that life truly is and can be if we simply follow him and live in this grace so freely given.

The parable of the talents has somewhat been a little misinterpreted as the word talents has seemed to become in modern day as a form of currency.  The Talent was actually not a coin it was a weight; and therefore the value of it was dependent on whether the coinage involved was copper Gold or silver.  The most common metal used at the time was silver and the value of a talent of silver was about 300 dollars.  Of course when we look at this parable the first thing we focus on is the useless servant.  This is somewhat thought to be and could be looked at as the Pharisees and the Scribes with their attitudes towards the law and the truth of God.  The servant buried his talent in the ground to keep it the same as it was; to give it back to his master exactly as it was; of the same context; same old same old.  Their idea was to keep the law the same.  As William Barclay states ”In their own phrasing they sought to build a fence around the law, any change, any alteration, anything new was anathema.” Or  something that was to be vehemently disliked.  In all true reality he is saying this is why they are condemned.  This seems to verify our action of the church as reforming.  As a Church of change and renewal, not one that buries its head in the ground.

As the servants that received different amounts of talents, one receiving five, another two and another one; we as people of the God all have different callings in life; different gifts, different ways of serving the lord.  We shouldn’t bury them in the ground, but use them to the best of our abilities.  We are to live life in the Christ to the fullest we can. Honing our skills as the Beatles did in Hamburg.  Or becoming the best we can to be of service to God and to others as Augustine of Hippo was.  Or in the humblest form, a servant of all others as  Therese of Lisieux.

May we be called to live the adventure known to us as life; life in the Christ.  To live in thanks for all that has been given to us; that the true servant of God is one who does not give up; but lives in the Christ to the fullest; the best they can.  This is not perfection; rather it is gratitude. The reason why.

We don’t do these things because of anything we do; but rather what Jesus does for us.  This is the gratitude; the reason why. Thanksgiving.  Our missions, our Jobs, our callings, are not based on us, but rather what God is in us and through us.  We as people of God are called in the Holy Spirit to be the best we can, at everything we are. To be adventurous, not to sit; to let the world go by; but to be apart of it as it changes in us and through us; as it changes us; changing the church; building our faith; renewing our reality of grace; growing our faith as Gods people.  The fire that burns over our heads and in our hearts. The reason why, the Father the Son and the Holy Ghost; Happy Thanksgiving; all gratitude to God.

 

 

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