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GATHERING AT THE RIVER

Revelation 21: 10; 21:22-22:5

 

“Although there is a film titled “The Great Escape,”its plot is not the subject I want to lift up to you today. It is a pervasivefeeling of wanting to escape, and the travel agencies jump on our desires toget away.  Mothers want to get awayfrom the demands of managing a household, just for awhile. And with a lovingcard, or a picked up room, or a box of chocolates, or a much needed nap, amother might be rejuvenated for her week ahead. It doesn’t take a lot ofcooperation to make a mother feel appreciated. Sometimes moms, like many dads,work outside the home as well. I remember talking to a father years ago. Iasked him how he liked his job and he said instantly that he hated every darnminute of it, he just did it for the paycheck, and he was counting the daysuntil he retired. All I asked was how he liked his job, and like a dambreaking, I was flooded with an overwhelming answer. I have heard from manyschool children who really don’t want to be in school. For some they areterrified of tests; for others they want to run away from bullies, and forothers they haven’t been able to make good friends. Some even fake illnesses tostay home from work or school so they don’t have to face what they don’t wantto face. It’s fine to want a break or a vacation; it’s another to desperatelylong to be somewhere else.Some of the favorite spirituals of the Christian hymnal were born frommen and women in confining or painful conditions. Life on earth was, for manyof them, slavery, back-breaking work, being eaten up by bugs or rats, living inunsanitary conditions, and being separated from loved ones. It isunderstandable that people would want to escape that world and get to heaven: somepeople are always talking about going to Heaven.  “There’s a land that is fairer than day, and by faith weshall see it afar; for the Father waits over the way, to prepare us a blessingplace there. In the sweet by and by, we shall meet on that beautiful shore” wesang last week. Or how about the song “There is coming a day when no heartachesshall come, no more clouds in the sky, no more tears to dim the eye; all ispeace forevermore on that happy golden shore, what a day, glorious day, thatwill be!” An advertising agency could not write more enticing words! But todaywe heard from the passage from Revelation 22: We heard the words “Shall wegather at the river, where bright angel feet have trod, with its crystal tideforever flowing by the throne of God?”Today, as I suggested to the children, I think it is fine to gather atthe river. In Biblical language this was the image of crossing in to thePromised Land that was originally known as Canaan from Mt. Nebo in Moab. It wasgoing from a land that wasn’t God’s to a land that was.  And if our lives are such tortuoushells on earth, then Heaven is indeed a relief. But our theology gives adifferent story; it is not our job to give up on this world so easily; it isnot to our benefit to run from every situation that overwhelms us, every personwith whom we have conflicts, or every human frailty as if we should pray thatour mortality should end.. When Jesuscame that we may have life and have it abundantly, he not only raised peopleup, he raised also their esteem and he opened their eyes. There are places inour world even now where broken people have created heavenly places, even hereon earth. Today I invite us not to buy into the great advertising campaign ofthe burden-fraught spirituals, but rather think about Christ on earth: as hewas here, God was here; as he departed, he left God here on earth for us.Slices of heaven are happening every day. A modern day true account is recordedby the Rev. Don Piper in his book 90 MINUTES IN HEAVEN. “On the way home from a conference, Don Piper’s car wascrushed by a semi that crossed into his lane. Medical personnel said he diedinstantly. While his body lay lifeless inside the ruins of his car, Piperexperienced the glories of heaven. … Ninety minutes after the wreck, while aminister prayed for him, He miraculously returned to life on earth… Itdramatically changed his life.”What he experienced in heaven was some things we might expect: he saw agreat light, he saw gates, and he heard choirs and the sound of angels’ wings.But the most amazing thing about his return to earth is how he saw God’s hand in all of those whoinfluenced his recovery; he then committed himself to a ministry on earthlifting up downtrodden people, not just with the hope of heaven, but also withthe blessedness of life on earth. When Dr. Olson Huff of Ashville, NorthCarolina was a medical director at a children’s hospital, he was a man of faithworking with life and death situations all the time. He didn’t always know howmuch his work meant to others aside from the grateful words of thanks as hereported cautious results from his surgeries. But one Christmas he found outbut one example of a man who lived his life differently on earth, living it bygratitude instead of by griping. Here is what he wrote: “Searching my pockets,I found a few pieces of loose change and hurriedly dropped them into theplastic bucket. The bell ringer, nose and cheeks alive from the chill in theair, breathed a frosty ‘God bless –Merry Christmas!’ as I pushed into the mall.People everywhere rushed like ants, slowing my progress, but I finally reachedmy objective: …the small card shop at the southern end of the mall…. I setabout trying to find what I thought Iwanted” when [a voice from behind said] “Scuse me, sir. Ain’t you the fellow thatdoctored my kid awhile back?’ The voice came from a tall, thin man with wateryeyes, and a scraggly beard of several days’ growth. His attempt to smilerevealed a slight tremor in his lips, and several of his teeth were on the wayout…. I tried to place him. ‘Oh yes,’ I said finally…. How—is everything?’ ‘I’dbe lying if I said things was just fine, but they could be a whole lot worse.Me and the kids is together, and they’re making it in school, and I’ve had workmost every day.’ The doctor sensed that the man had more to say, and,strangely, he was interested. The Christmas card could wait. And as he motionedfor them to move into a coffee shop and sit at the counter, Dr. Huff almostfelt like God had sent this messenger to him. He related how his wife hadkicked him out for drinkin’ and she sent her own kids packin’ too! He gotthrough to his son on a fishing trip that ended in a thunderstorm where heprotected his son. His son decided then and there that his father loved him. Hewas out that night buying his daughter a new teddy bear for Christmas becauseshe lost her old one. He was connecting with people who mattered to him. And byGod’s providence, he ran into the doctor he wanted to thank. The doctor saidhis good byes, and headed to the card shop, but this time he wasn’t going to berushed. It occurred to him how important family was. “When you care enough tosend the very best” the card shop slogan said. It occurred to him that he hadn’tbeen doing that; and he decided tochange, just because he ran into a toothless but hopeful man who reminded himof his blessings.

Today the Revelation to John was giving hope of abetter life to people who were be
ing tortured, killed, and imprisoned. If yourlife is that bad, then crossing the river to the other side will be a greatjoy, and some truly need release from their tortured lives. But today, for therest of us who think at times we can’t take it any more, perhaps having eyesopened to those around us who have Jesus’ hands and feet, and have his outlook andattitude, is all that we need to make the great here and now worth living,rather than wanting to quit life here by longing for the sweet by and by. TodayI am reminding you that there are places of heavenly action all around us!
Some may change you; some may bring change to others throughyou. Blessings are rarely received bya person sitting hoping for them; blessings often come in the activities oflife when and where one least expectsthem.

With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy who is famous for hislist of “You might be a redneck if” I offer this list so you might choose tosee heavenly things on this sideof the river, instead of just longingly casting your gaze on the watery banksof the other side:

You might get a slice of heaven when you mentor a childor youth.

You might get a slice of heaven when someone becomesyour friend or you offer to become someone else’s friend.

You might get a slice of heaven when good hosts atchurch or in homes, offer food, fellowship, and friendship in a joyousenvironment.

You might get a slice of heaven serving a meal to ahungry man and hearing his gratitude for a plate of hot food, fresh vegetables,and cool water.

You might get a slice of heaven as you sit with saintsto worship and sing to God, the very activity that is central to heaven.

And you might get a slice of heaven, when you offercharity to another.

One time my son Chris had a man near the campus at Uof F ask him for money because he was hungry. Chris said he didn’t have moneybut he had a card for food; he invited the homeless man to come through theline with him, get food, pray with him and share a meal with him. Not only didhe never forget the encounter, at the end of the meal Chris had two collegegirls watch his kindness and walk up and hand him their phone numbers! We knowGod is watching our actions; we never know who else may be watching! Heaven happens here too! Look on thisside of the river, not just the otherside.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 9,2010

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Revelation 21: 1-6

 

There are so many stories about heaven! People wonder what it will be like. Many of us have heard the stories people make up when they take some Biblical quotation literally.  According to Revelation 21:21, the streets of heaven are paved with gold.  A wealthy man had gotten his way on earth with his wealth; he had accumulated quite a bit: in fact he had more than he could possibly spend in his lifetime. Since gold never seemed to lose its value, he asked that when he was buried, that his casket also be filled with bricks of gold.  The funeral director objected, saying it would make the casket unbearably heavy. But he said he was a man of means and he would pay to have a heavy duty casket constructed with wheels on the bottom and a handle on one end for pallbearers to guide it. The funeral director shrugged his shoulders and granted the request. Eventually the man died and he went up to heaven. Proudly he showed up got out of his casket filled with gold, and pulled it behind him with the handle, like a little boy going to a playground. As he approached the pearly gates (so named also from Revelation 21:21), he noticed that Peter and the others, not meaning to be unkind, were all stifling laughter. “What’s the matter?” he asked “What’s so funny?”  To which they said: “We have an endless supply of pavement here and you brought your own!

People take the story in Matthew 16:19 literally too, when Jesus said he’d give Peter the keys to the kingdom of Heaven. People therefore have called Peter Heaven’s gatekeeper. The story is told about a man and his wife getting into a terrible car crash that took them both to heaven. As they met Peter at the gate, he had a question for each one of them.  To the man’s wife Peter said, “Spell love.” “L-O-V-E” she said. “Very good!” said Peter. “Welcome to heaven!” To the man he said “Spell Jesus,” and the man said “J-E-S-U-S.” “Very good!” said Peter. “Welcome to Heaven.” Some weeks later as they were settled in to Heaven, the Lord needed Peter for a moment, so Peter asked the man to cover the gate for him while he was away. To his horror, the next woman in line was actually his ex-wife! “Hello dear,” he said in as celestial a voice as he could muster. “Spell Czechoslovakia.”

 

And finally since the King James Bible translated a word in John 14 as “mansions” instead of the original “rooms” which were built onto the father’s house in Jesus’ day, so we have plenty of jokes about the Gator mansion, the Noles’ mansion, and perhaps even your mansion! Some hope heaven is made up of mansions and golf courses! But most of what we know about heaven is metaphor and mystery. It was Paul who said, “for now we see in a glass darkly, but then we shall see face to face.” It was Paul who said, “Lo, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” And today it is Jesus’ Revelation to John that revealed these words:

“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.” All things were new, and there was no longer a great divide between earth and heaven.

“And I John, saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” The city was dazzling white, beautiful, and breathtaking. She was a vision to behold! And in that vision there was a voice from a throne, so it must have been Jesus’ own voice, and he said “God wants to live among us. God will dwell with us and be our God, and they will claim him as well!” What a vision! And while God is as close as the one sitting across from you, God can one day take a heavenly handkerchief and dry the last tears that will stream down our faces. As Tom Hanks coached a team of girls in the movie “A League of their Own,” he proclaimed “There’s no crying in baseball!” Today Jesus proclaims to the faithful: “There’s no crying in Heaven!” We won’t go through there what we have gone through here, because there is no more death; it is only once! Also left on earth are sadness and pain: those are human problems of our mortals lives, not our heavenly lives! Our earthly lives will been transformed. And Jesus said that he personally was making all things new! Isn’t it great when someone can give us a brand new clean slate, or a brand new relationship, or a brand new body?! And Jesus then said: “Write this down.” So John … and we … get our pencils poised, and he let’s us know it is really him talking: “Pssssst! It’s me! You know: the Alpha and Omega; the one who was there in the beginning and the one who will be with you in the end! I promised that!”  And as you hear the words of your Savior, and picture his face in ways that perhaps you couldn’t on earth, stories about streets of gold and Peter at the gate and big exclusive mansions pale in comparison to a place where pain, sadness, and anguish are no longer. What would we give to have such blessings amidst the stress and pain of our daily conflicts? Let’s get ready for heaven, with daily faith, hope, and love. Perhaps the drawings children will make today will make God smile with their child-like imagination. And from this day forward we may still laugh at the jokes about heaven. But for now, I am willing to just see in a glass darkly, until I join others in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the sweet by and by. But if you look around you, sometimes a little slice of heaven shines through the clouds, and we see heavenly things happening even on our most human of days.  Thanks be to God.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                         May 2, 2010

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“The Good Shepherd”

 

I’ve never liked that the Bible tends to compare humanity to sheep a lot. When I was younger, I was a member of 4-H. While I was mostly interested in horses, I attended a couple of events with sheep and I learned a few things about these animals. Sheep are stubborn and are hard to force into things. While I learned to like individual sheep, once it joined the herd again all of the individuality went away. Sheep follow the rest of the sheep blindly – regardless of the results. There was a disastrous incident in Turkey awhile back when nearly five hundred sheep just followed each other off a cliff while the shepherd was having lunch.

There are so many other animals that God could have compared us to. Foxes because they are clever. Doves because they are peaceful and gentle. But no, we are called sheep. They require a shepherd to care for them. They require a shepherd to protect them. They require someone who will look after their smallest needs and who will lead them to where they need to be. I may not like it, but it seems as though there are a lot of ways humans are like sheep, especially when we begin to flock together. Without their shepherd, sheep will follow each other to disaster. Sound familiar?

The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. Christians hear these words over and over again in their lives. We hear them so much that it is easy to forget what they actually mean. The Lord is my shepherd. While this is a very useful metaphor in ancient Israel, it needs some translating for 21st century America. We are not quite as familiar with what it means to be a shepherd.

Shepherds are responsible for the care and well being of their sheep. This is a harder task than you might think for all sorts of dangers threaten the sheep. There are thieves who try to steal the sheep. Wolves who try to eat them. Sheep step into holes, get stuck in bushes and follow each other of cliffs. Again, I am seeing some familiarities. We get ourselves in trouble all the time and there are many dangers in our lives. Yet Christ, our shepherd cares for us even in the midst of our troubles.

Shepherds have a close relationship with their sheep. Sheep live for twenty to twenty five years. The sheep of this time were raised for wool, not meat. The shepherd spent most of his time with the sheep. The sheep live with the family. 

The Indian theologian D. T. Niles once noticed a young Indian shepherd boy keeping a huge flock of sheep. He stopped and asked, “How many sheep do you have?”

“I don’t know,” answered the boy, “I can’t count.”

Niles asked him, “How do you know if some of the sheep haven’t wandered off when you get to the place where you’re going to camp at night?”

To his astonishment, the boy answered, “I don’t know how many wander off, but I know each one. I can’t count, but each sheep has a name, and I know their names.”

 

From our casual point of view, all sheep look the same. Different shapes and sizes, but for the most part, they’re a dime a dozen – if you’ve seen one sheep, you’ve seen them all. Right? Not true. Because a shepherd spends a lot of time with his sheep, and as he does, he gets to know the different personalities and quirks of each one of his sheep. That one over there, he might say, likes to stray away. This one over here, he gets tired all the time. And this one, well, he is very bad at finding pasture. You need watch out for this one – he’s mean. And that one over there is always running ahead – overconfident. Each sheep has its own personality, different strengths and weaknesses, and a good shepherd will know what those different things are about his sheep. He knows them.

 

Christ knows each of us, individually and by name. One of the lessons of Psalm 23 is that every person who is one of God’s flock is individually cared for as one of God’s sheep. Unlike most of the Psalms, 23 says the Lord is MY shepherd. The other psalms say The Lord is OUR shepherd. Never forget that while you are also one of God’s flock, His care for you is an individual type of care, not merely as a number or as a series of perforations in a computer card. David never lost his sense of individual pastoral care from the hand of his Shepherd.

 

I may be frustrated by the idea of being a sheep, but the Bible keeps pointing out over and over the parallels. One of my favorite passages is from Ezekiel 34:11-15. “For thus says the Lord God, “Behold, I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd cares for his herd in the day when he is among his scattered sheep, so I will care for My sheep and will deliver them from all the places to which they were scattered on a cloudy and gloomy day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries and bring them to their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the streams, and in all the inhabited places of the land. I will feed them in a good pasture, and their grazing ground will be on the mountain heights of Israel. There they will lie down in good grazing ground, and they will feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I will feed My flock and I will lead them to rest,” declares the Lord God.”

 

The shepherd brings his sheep to food and water. The shepherd rescues his flock and brings them back together. And the shepherd cares for us, just as Christ does. 

 

The tools of a shepherd are telling too. The first tool of a shepherd is the staff, pointed on one end, crooked on the other. A shepherd lovingly reaches his staff down into a hole and slips the staff under the sheep’s leg and gently pulls the sheep out of the hole. And we, people, are like sheep. We get into holes during our lives, and God is forever pulling us out of our holes. A Biblical passage from Isaiah asks, “Is my arm too short to reach down and pull you up? No. My arm is not too short to reach down and help you.” It must be clearly said that the shepherd never uses the other end of the staff to hit the sheep in order to get the sheep to obey. The pointed end of the staff is reserved for the enemies such as wolves and thieves. The shepherd never strikes the sheep with his staff in order to get conformity or obedience; the shepherd is the good shepherd.

 

The second, more powerful, tool of the shepherd is the shepherd’s voice. Over time, the sheep get to know the shepherd’s voice. In the middle east, there are many caves, and several flocks of sheep might be herded into one of them to escape a storm, or to weather overnight. But in the morning, the shepherd doesn’t have to look for brands or markings, he just steps away from the cave, moves away from the other shepherds, and calls to his flock. And they come right to him, because they know his voice.

For better or for worse, we are God’s sheep. But is Christ our shepherd? Is it his voice we follow?

 

Scientists hypothesize that if time travel were possible and we could go back 1000 years, one of the things that would shock us most would be the silence. Think about it. All the background noise of our modern world: television, telephones, radios, cars, planes, refrigerators…none of which existed a thousand years ago. Some even hypothesize that for modern man that silence would be deafening. Because we are surrounded by voices: on TV, on the radio, on the internet: all telling us what we need to know, how to be saved, how to find peace, how to be happy.

 

And yet we are called to listen for the still small voice of God admits the chaos. One voice among the thousands screaming at us. How on earth can we hear that we cry.

 

There were two men were walking along a crowded city sidewalk. Suddenly, one of the men remarked, “Listen to the lovely sound of that cricket,” But the other man could not hear the sound.

He asked his friend how he could hear the sound of a cricket amid the roar of the traffic and the sound of the people. The first man, who was a zoologist, had trained himself to hear the sounds of nature.

He didn’t explain to his friend in words how he could hear the sound of the cricket, but instead, he reached into his pocket, pulled out a half-dollar coin, dropped it onto the sidewalk, and watched intently as a dozen people began to look for the coin as they heard it clanking around amid the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the city. He turned to his friend and said, “We hear what we listen for.”

 

What do you listen for? Do you hear Christ’s voice admits the chaos?

 

Even when we do hear that voice, do we follow it? Jesus leads us through hard places some times and asks us to do difficult things. It seems like it would be so much easier to stray off the path. To eat the grass that is right here rather than struggling through the difficult valleys.

 

My dog Dylan knows my voice. When we go to the dog park people call commands to their dogs all the time, but he ignores those commands. Yet when I tell him to come, he will race across half the park to respond. I know he knows my voice. Sometimes though, he decides what he is doing is far more interesting then what I am telling him to do. He knows my voice, but he doesn’t always follow it.

 

We know Christ’s voice. We know what he is calling us to do. The question is do we follow? 

 

Jesus calls us. And in the midst of this noisy world we hear him. And so when we follow him, as he leads us through this world. When we follow Christ we trust him. We don’t always understand him. But I don’t think sheep ever really understand what their shepherd is doing. Don’t you think that’s true? Most of the time, sheep have no idea what their shepherd is doing – why the shepherd is taking them here, or pushing them there. Sheep have no idea. But the shepherd knows his sheep, and he does what is best for them. The sheep follow their shepherd.

Christ is calling you to follow.  Whose sheep will you be? Amen.

 

Rev. Cara Gee

April 25th, 2010

 

 

 

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PAYING ATTENTION TO VISIONS

Acts 9: 1-6; John 21: 1-8

 

Dr. Lex Baer of our Presbyterian Counseling Centersays “Pay attention to your dreams.” Easier said then done for people like me.I tell him I often don’t dream and he says everyone dreams, you just have tofacilitate writing them down from a twilight sleep or right when I wake up. Ithen admit that I remember some dreams but don’t really find them comforting soI let them pass into forgottenness. He just smiles.  We know, for example, that in Egypt ages ago, and perhapseven now, Egyptians believed that dreams could tell the future. So we travel toGenesis 40 where the youngest son of Jacob, called Joseph, has been sold by hisbrothers to a traveling band of Ishmaelites.  They are traders who then sold him to Potiphar, the captainof the Pharaoh of Egypt’s guard. He ends up in prison (where Pharaoh also hadcast his cup bearer and head baker!) And Joseph asks them what was wrong. Theywere troubled with the meaning of dreams they had each had the night before.“Tell them to me” Joseph invites them in Genesis 40. “Interpretations belongsto God, does they not? Tell me your dreams that I may interpret them since I ama man of God!” So tell him they did: The one dreamt that he had filled hismaster’s cups with the grapes of three vines. Joseph said that meant that inthree days he would be released and restored to his position. It happened justas he said! The baker said that he dreamt he had three baskets of cakes on hishead for Pharaoh but that the top cake was eaten by birds. To that Josephpredicted that he would be hanged in three days! And it was so!! Joseph couldpredict dreams because of his connection to God. Pharaoh was most interested.Two years later Pharaoh himself dreamed that he saw seven fat cows come out ofthe Nile followed by seven skinny cows that ate the fat cows but remainedskinny. “What does it mean?” Pharaoh asked Joseph?” Joseph said what it meant:“There will be seven years of plenty, sir, followed by seven years of faminethat will negate the seven years of plenty. (Almost like the dot.com andhousing market boom has nearly been negated by the foreclosures and job lossesof the last three years.)  Dreamsmean something,” Dr. Lex said.  Andit was another Joseph, the earthly father of baby Jesus, who had revealed tohim in a dream that his espoused wife was expecting a child; later a dreamwarned the wise men about Herod and warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus toEgypt to avoid what has been called the slaughter of the innocence. Dreamsmatter.

 

Sometimes dreams and visions are used interchangeably,sometimes they are different. I know of people who have seen visions of angelsin the dark of night, and others who have had a vision of a loved one who hadalready gone to heaven. Dreams and visions matter, as in both cases, messagesof comfort bathed the souls of the survivors who saw them. As I shared with thechildren, fourteen years before the wreck of the ocean liner Titanic, a man named Morgan Robinson had his novella publishedcalled Futility.  Itwas the fictional story of the largest ocean liner afloat, called the Titan,which sailed on its maiden voyagefrom England to New York and struck an iceberg on its starboard side, all ofwhich actually happened in 1912. What could make a fictional story become anon-fiction disaster?  What haveyou experienced in the ways of premonitions, or visions, or dream? Was theretruth or terror in any of them?

 

When a young Jew named Saul was growing up, he wouldhave been aware of the stories of Joseph, the youngest son of Jacob; he wouldhave been aware of the vision of the greatest prophet of all time—Elijah—beingtaken up into heaven in a whirlwind. He would have been told the story of Godappearing to the young Solomon in a dream. He knew such things happened,perhaps even more than our modern day world believes it happens. But there arepeople even today, who also believe in prophesies, dreams and visions. Thereare some who have experienced those events that seem to fly under the radar ofmany other mortals. But it is likely that young Saul, later a persecutor ofChristians, would never have believed the vision he would have. The one whoChristians were following appeared to him in a blinding vision: “Saul, Saul,why do you persecute me?” Jesus asked this now incapacitated man. In the daysthat followed that encounter Saul paid attention to his dream. It transformedhim; it made him into the passionate Christian he came to be. And in John 21 weare heard about John identifying a man at the side of the Sea of Galilee as theLord; no one else recognized him; perhaps they didn’t even expect to see him.But John paid attention to the vision of Jesus; it was John, who felt toounworthy to be loved by Jesus, who identified him as their risen Lord. And theirlives were, and the world was, changed forever because of that encounter.

 

Finally, some are puzzled by, and others are blessedby the last book in the Bible: the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John.  It is a vision; a long and sometimesdeliberately confusing vision. John needed his message to get past his guardswhile he was in prison on the island of Patmos, wanting them to consider itharmless gibberish rather than the hopeful encouragement to Christians andsubtle condemnation of the emperor that it contained. With the description ofthat vision, we have our best idea of what Heaven is like; with that vision, weknow that God will win against all human tyrants in the end. What a loss itwould be if John did not pay attention to his vision!

 

The Lord works in mysterious ways. Sometimes Godchooses to break through ordinary barriers to deliver a message to believersand non-believers alike; a message that will fulfill a purpose. Sometimes it isto comfort you; sometimes it is as a warning; and sometimes it is just toremind the world that God is still with us. I don’t know what to make of peoplewho seem to sense things beyond my perception. But I know that in many casessuch communications reveal information that might not otherwise have beenobtained.

 

“Pay attention to your dreams.” The advice has comeback with renewed meaning. What wonderful ways is God able to use our minds,coupled with our faith, to help steer th
e ship we call planet Earth? Let thosewho have eyes, let them see. Let those who have ears, let them hear. And let allthose who are willing, lift up and open their hearts. God may be showing youthe way, the truth, and the life again, or for the very first time.

 

Jeffrey Sumner April 18, 2010

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WHO SEALS YOUR HEART?

Song of Songs 8:  6-7a; John 20: 19-31

 

Songwriter Paul Stookey wrote  this about Jesus: “He is now to be among you, at the calling of your heart, rest assured this troubadour is acting on his part; the union of your spirits here has caused him to remain; for whenever to or more of you are gathered in his name there is love.”  Of course his message isn’t just from the 1970s; it is from Matthew 18 verse 20. In first John chapter 4 we are reminded that “God is Love.” But even before that, there was a love song in the Bible known as “The Song of Songs” or “The Song of Solomon.” In placing it in the Bible, early church authorities offered readers poetry that might have made them blush at first; some might read it as just a human love story. But there were clearly readers of that ancient love song, parts of which pre-date the 3rd century B.C.E., who believed it was about more than the romantic love of another person; it was also about the sealing of one’s heart to God. Later people would be reminded of those words as Paul used marriage imagery to say that Christ loves the church as Christians love him in return. Even Jesus reminds us in Luke 12: 34 that “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Lovers want to be the treasure of their lover’s heart; God wants to be the treasure of ours, sealed by the sacraments and by our profession of faith, hope, and love. Today let us see who has sealed our hearts.

 

When John describes the seven seals in the Revelation Jesus gave him, he was describing something that was protected, set apart, consecrated, and even secret. When Peter Yarrow in a children’s song described “sealing wax, and other fancy stuff,” I didn’t have a frame of reference for what that was. But in a recent mini-series about the English Tudors, I watched the king’s aid pour hot wax over the crease of a wound up scroll, and the king put his signet ring into the wax as popes and other monarchs have done. It “seals” the contents as being the genuine message from one to another. The seal is only to be broken by the intended recipient; if it is broken earlier it is clearly noticeable. The ancient poet asks a lover to “set me as a seal upon your heart.” We might even imagine God saying to us “Set me as a seal upon your heart. Take me in, give me a home there, and seal it. Let only my love dwell there so that you too will never forget my love.” And God surely hopes that we would say, one by one, “Set me as a seal upon your heart” as well.

 

As I have begun my doctoral studies in Christian spirituality, a new world of Christian mystics and writers has been opened to me. With the neo-Platonic influence of his day, St. Augustine refers to his loving God like this:

“I came to love you too late, Oh Beauty, so ancient and so new. Yes, I came to love you too late: what did I know? You were inside me, and I was out of my body and mind, looking for you!” The joyful St. Francis of Assisi, who felt God’s love especially through nature, said: “Such love does the sky now pour that whenever I stand in a field, I have to wring out the light when I get home!”  And it was also St. Francis who “discovered a religious calling to praise God through courtly and knightly service (as in chivalrous knights) loving a figure he imagined as a heavenly lady: Lady Poverty.” (quote from Francis J. Ambrosio) It was his beloved Claire of Assisi who wrote about Christ: “Draw me after You! We will run in the fragrance of Your perfumes, O heavenly Spouse!” St . Teresa of Avila once wrote, “I love what I could love, until I held Him (capital H), for then—all things—every world, disappeared.” And the mystic St. John of the Cross famously wrote two poems about God, one about feeling the absence of God called “The Dark Night of the Soul,” and one about the divine illumination and love he felt from God, and that his heart passionately poured back to God in return. He called it “The Living Flame of Love,” and some of the stanzas include these words:  “O Living Flame of Love, that woundest tenderly my soul in its utmost depth! As Thou art no longer grievous, perfect Thy work, if it be Thy will ….How tenderly Thou fillest me with Thy love.”

 

It was to Jeremiah that God lovingly said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; in Biblical terms when Adam knew Eve he loved her; here we know that before God formed Jeremiah in the womb he loved him. God loved him from his creation, perhaps even at the very idea of him! “And I consecrated you” means, “I have set you apart as my own.” I have put my seal over your soul and pressed the signet ring into it, claiming your soul as mine. And God offers the very same words to those who love the Wonderful One! Even before any one of us was born, God loved us; God loves us still. The seal is God’s claim on our heart, even, disappointingly to God, even if it is unrequited love, even if we do not love God back.  “What wondrous love is this O my soul, O my soul, what wondrous love is this, O my soul? What wondrous love is this that cause the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse (of my sins) O my soul?  How is it that God keeps loving us through our sins, our self-centeredness, or our hatefulness?  It’s like a good parent and a child, or good friends, or lovers where devotion continues despite disappointments. But sometimes something is done so heineous to the other that love dries up or is withdrawn. It is understandable when a person’s wounds are so deep. But can you imagine what God says when you or I wound God?  The Apostle Paul experienced God’s grace and mercy in such a way that he wrote about it to the Christians in Rome: Paul says this is God’s stand:  “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Most of the time we talk about showing reverence for God, or being awestruck in God’s presence, or we may think of God as handy to have around in a crisis but otherwise we just let God be along for the ride. But what if we took the undying love found in li
terature and real life, like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, like Oliver and Jenny devotion in Erich Segal’s, Love Story, like Noah’s love for Allie in Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, or like Catherine and Peter Marshall’s love for each other told in stories after his death: what if we took that kind of love and offered it back to God? How radical would it be if, from our lips we said to God, “Neither life nor death, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate you from my love.”  What would that do for God? How do you imagine the holy heart would react? And isn’t that ultimately what God longs to hear? Using either the mystic’s analogy of burning passionate love, or the love that is apparent is in the Song of Songs; or using other Biblical examples like that offered by Mary the mother of Jesus, loving God and loving others is even Jesus’ new commandment. Surely God loves to receive love, not just give love! The one who has put a heavenly seal on your heart and said, “You are mine,” will love to hear the words from you, and from me today, saying: “And I am yours.” Passion, devotion, forgiveness, and great care are hallmarks of what one can offer another in love! That is also what God offers us. What energy and joy could be produced if each of our hearts, one by one, came alive today with renewed passion, devotion, forgiveness, and care toward God?

Jeffrey Sumner                                                      April 11, 2010

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CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD!

1 Corinthians 15: 12-22; Mark 16: 1-8

 

In Old Jerusalem, even today, there is a place said to be the Upper Room. It is the place where Jesus shared his last meal with the ones known as “The Twelve.” They were the traditional choice of the men who were to carry on the tradition of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob’s sons-the one’s Jesus had in mind when he was planning to institute the New Israel! If you read about those twelve brothers, not only were they not perfect, they depicted countless sins with their behavior! They were jealous, envious, and crafty, just like their father Jacob! But they were chosen; chosen by God to, through their imperfection, show what God could do with human beings.

So Jesus gathered twelve men to be his apostles not because they were brighter or more worthy, but to re-create the picture of those original twelve tribes. He had extraordinary women who followed and supported him as well, and on Easter their wisdom shone through. But of the apostles: some were quiet, some were loud; some doubted, some believed; some were good evangelists and some were exclusivists.  And one, through puzzling motives, even betrayed him while one denied knowing him three times.

 

On Friday, the scene moved to a stone quarry with a rock face that looked like a skull from a distance, so it was called “the place of the skull” “Golgotha” in Aramaic, later called “Calvary” when it was translated into Latin. It was a place where work was done, but also a public place where Romans wanting to keep down insurrections (riots) and to make people see what people faced if they flaunted Roman rules, they put their torturous death machine there in a public place. Few people in that day stood around to watch people die in such a brutal fashion unless it was the families of  those who had been wronged. In Jesus’ case, trumped up charges made by religious leaders who were concerned about Jesus’ rising power got him nailed to one of the crosses. The experience was anguishing to watch and tortuous to experience. The one who was called Christ died on the cross at the very time that, across town, the Passover Lamb was slaughtered to pay the price for Jewish sins. But on that dark Friday, the lamb of God took away also the sins of the whole world as he died for the sins of others.

Thankfully women came to tomb very early on Sunday morning, a tomb generously given by Joseph of Arimathea. This was a loving and prescribed Jewish ritual, but what they found had never been found before. The dead body was not there! The stone that had blocked the tomb had been rolled back! No Jew would ever touch a dead body except through respect, and no Romans were interested; his body wasn’t stolen; he had been bodily resurrected from its resting place! And Scripture records that women, who had supported Jesus throughout his life and ministry, were the first ones who witnessed it. And the world has never been the same.

 

Today you are invited not to a last supper of dread, but to a joyful feast of the people of God. Today let me ask you even as you partake: are you filled with faith; are you haunted by doubt; do you partake with joy or with trepidation? Jesus had people from many different lands end up following him. But for the ones who doubted, he said to put away all their doubts and believe! No matter where you are in your faith journey, today is a day of new beginnings! Christ truly rose from the dead! It is he who invites you to partake of this joyous Communion with Him.

Jeffrey Sumner                                                      April 4, 2010

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GOD’S TIME … AND YOURS

Jeremiah 31: 10-14; Ephesians 1: 2-14

 

Someone once said, “What time is it? [It is] time to do well, time to live better, give up a grudge, answer the letter; speak the kind word to sweeten a sorrow, do that kind deed you would leave ‘till tomorrow.”  Each year Americans and others mark January 1st as the beginning of a new year: a time when some reminisce about the last year and some say good riddance; some make plans and some make promises. So on this third day of January, what time is it for you? And how fast is time now flying for you? If you are young, the year probably seemed too long and the Christmas vacation too short; if you are a parent it was likely the other way around! If you are older it may feel like the years are going by faster and faster. Time is something that, regardless of our mood, our desire, or our wealth, gets spent whether we like it or not. Sometimes we even do things to “kill time.” Some may pace, read waiting room magazines, or do crossword puzzles or Sudoku; others play games on their cell phones or they call someone. Time can be frittered away or used wisely. Time gets spent, and when it is gone it cannot be returned. Here is the way the Psalmist imagines what time is like to God: “For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past.” 

 

Jeremiah was a prophet before and during the Babylonian Exile. We discover that no one on earth knew how long the people of Judah would be in Babylon because of their faithlessness. Only God knew when the time would be accomplished. God’s will and plan gets carried out even in the midst of human sin and willfulness. In our analogue or digitally timed world, seconds go by at the same pace forever; it is only our demeanor, focus, and age that seems to make it speed up or slow down. But in Kairos, that is, God’s time, God gives those events redemptive purpose. The preacher in Ecclesiastes told us; “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under Heaven.” Then he gave us examples: “A time to be born, and a time to die,” “a time to weep and a time to laugh,” “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, and so on.” There is a time for everything in Kairos time; but in our time we are either not yet ready to die or more than ready to die; we may weep to much and laugh too little or the other way around; we may wish to be embraced or at other times wish to be left alone. We get out of synch with ourselves. Our job is to be in synch with God.

 Kairos is a way of affirming that the hands on God’s clock and days on God’s calendar move at a different speed than our clocks and calendars. Things may not be happening in your life in the order and way that you dreamed that they might, with unexpected deaths, divorces, layoffs, or depression, but for those who love God, according to Romans 8:28, God will accompany you and work to pull good out of the jaws of disaster or tragedy. According to Paul, “We have been chosen by Christ before the foundation of the world to become, through him, holy and blameless before God.” How are we doing? We are not there on our own and we never will be. The one who can present us faultless before God is the Lord Jesus Christ. By putting our trust and belief in Him, we can begin a new year, and even a new life, on the right foot. Starting out on the “right foot” is significant, just as Jesus “sitting at the right hand of the Father” is significant. The right hand is the hand of blessing; stepping out on the right foot means you plan to walk in the ways of His blessing. Paul says Jesus has a plan for the fullness of time for those who desire it. If some today decide in their heart that they want to recommit to Christ, then answer the knock on the door of your heart and he will come in. If you choose to partake in Holy Communion today you are saying to Jesus who sacrificed for you, “I accept your love for me, and I offer my love to you.”

 

In his wonderful letter to the Ephesians, Paul also says “With all wisdom and insight God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things to him, things in heaven and things on earth.” The hairs on our heads are numbered, even though with some of us that number is dropping! Our days please God if we are faithful. God even knows how long we will be on this earth and when we will move to resurrected life … or not.  Choices are still ours to make. But time is God’s gift to us; every minute that ticks by in traffic, in church, or at work is a minute that gets used and is gone, never to be reclaimed. We have a chance to prayerfully seek to live life in synch with God, not letting the ticking of the clock or the flipping of a calendar page make us anxious. Instead of standing flatfooted and letting the world throw it’s curveballs across our plate, beginning in this new year we start each day as if we are stepping into life’s batter’s box. While on deck, a good baseball player imagines what pitches might come his way, studies the way the fielders are playing him, and mentally prepares himself for the pitch. This year, instead of letting each day roll right over you, why not begin each new day with prayer, asking God to make you mentally alert, insightful, and ready? Then in God’s own time, your time at life’s plate may produce an out, but it also might be a home run; there might be runs scored and there will certainly be walks. But that is not our worry; our concern is to be in life’s game, to step up to the plate ready to be on time and in time, and to live it for all we’re worth. Let’s start today.

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                               January 3, 2010

 

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KEEPING CHRISTMAS

Colossians 3: 12-17

 

During my childhood Christmases, many evenings we read stories and watched television specials; we were part of the Christmas Eve services and we sang Christmas carols; and each year we heard the Bible story retold. At the beginning of this decade, writer John Grisham moved out of his law firm box and wrote a short novel that he called SKIPPING CHRISTMAS. In it Luther and Nora Krank decided to skip Christmas. Since their daughter announced she would not be coming home that year, they decided to do what some in Florida might be tempted to do: they signed up to take a cruise at Christmas instead! Little did they know what hostility they would encounter from neighbors when they did not put Frosty the Snowman on their roof, lights on their gutters, or take part in the neighborhood Christmas parade. They were treated as if they were renouncing their country! Holiday traditions run very deeply in families. As a child, I remember the annual playing of a crackly record from the 1950s called The Stingiest Man in Town. It was, as you may have guessed, an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol.”  Dickens has been called “The Man Who Saved Christmas,” since many of out holiday traditions do not go back to the little town of Bethlehem, they go back to England. Dickens wrote there where winters were cold and damp, carolers shared music door to door, and people who had means would feast on a Christmas goose or turkey.  But the best part about what Dickens gave us was the narrator’s description of the man who repented because three spirits showed him life’s outcome if he didn’t.

 

Today can be a day to start over for us as well; on the threshold of a new year we can say “be gone!” to our nasty habits, to hateful hurtfulness, and to hearts filled with darkness. The fictional character Scrooge was miserly, selfish, and materialistic; descriptions that, like a suit of clothes, some people in our world wear even now. Today it is time to go shopping; it is time to cast off the old clothing that the Apostle Paul described to the Colossians as sexual immorality, indecency, evil passions, and greed as described in Today’s English Translation. The list continues with some other characteristics that are difficult to dismiss: “anger, intense destructive rage, doing things deliberately to hurt someone else, insults, and foul language.” How often people have been hurt physically or emotionally by the anger of another; schools children may become victims of insults because of how they look or act or dress; and in public I have heard strings of words from others that made me and others cringe; I’ve even heard parents in shopping centers use them as verbal land mines that poison and corrupt their children.  Children speak as we speak; what a shame to hear what they are being taught. But we can change all that! We can choose to be less involved with people whose anger, improper contact with us, greed, or words make us uncomfortable. But we can also give a tremendous gift to those around us if we will choose to “clean up our own acts” instead of using the lame and indefensible excuse, “That’s just the way I am.” The whole story of Jesus’ ministry describes people changing because they have met him. You and I can change too. This week is New Year’s resolutions week. Why not start today with a life change that will change eternity for you?

 

From the beginning of creation in Genesis, God has given human beings choices; we can move in lock-step with the qualities that the Apostle Paul describes: “impurity, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, dissension, factions, envy, drunkenness and carousing.”  The tentacles from each of those activities start to choke, cripple, and even destroy its victims.  But Paul has another list that brings life. If we are people of God’s promise, accepting God’s offer to repent, we can have life like we’ve never had before. It takes work and will in our walk with God. One commentator, Leonard Klein, wrote these words when he looked at our Colossians text in light of Christmas: “[Christmas] is not just a matter of thinking warm thoughts about others and throwing some coins in a kettle. It is about reclaiming the new identity that is ours in Christ. The baptized (vs. 12) are ‘God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.’ Therefore they should clothe themselves in ‘compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.’” [THE LECTIONARY COMMENTARY, VOL 2. 393.]

Women, children, and even men are likely trying on new clothes that they’ve received at Christmas to see if they fit. And if they fit they might have even worn them already.  Paul implores us to try on clothing for choosing: so we will make good choices that help us to keep Christmas, to remember our baptisms, and to honor the Christ who we call Savior.  Imagine, if you will, going to a wardrobe or your own closet, and taking off a garment of hate and anger and obsession, and putting on a garment of compassion and patience, of kindness and forgiveness.  In likelihood the garment will be white, and the one you have just taken off will be soiled. This white garment makes you feel new, and fresh, and changed. Imagine that garment as your baptismal garment. In some traditions, people put on special baptism gowns or robes to symbolize how they are made new in their Christian baptisms. But by the end of the ceremony, or at least by the end of the day, their garments are removed; only then can we can decide if we will retain our Christian spiritual qualities.

 

We know that the birth of Jesus is a highlight for Christians and the world. But without his meaningful death and his theological identity as Son of God, that birth in Bethlehem would never have made the annals of history. It would just have been another birth. It has been up to Christians for generations to let the world know love, mercy, and integrity. At times the record shows that we have failed. It is now another year to live into our baptisms; another year to not just wear new clothes, but to put on the new ones that God’s love and our acceptance allow us to wear. The world is watching us: how will we show others, and God, that we get it; that this big holiday has not just been about ourselves and our presents, but about inquirers “preparing him room” in their hearts, and for the rest of us to demonstrate who is on the throne of our lives today?  Each Christmas is a moment in time when we can measure our progress using Paul’s list of Christian characteristics or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. But today we might measure ourselves by the character created by the man who saved Christmas- looking at the commercial, industrial, and self-serving policies of 19th c. London and imagined a change coming to the poor and needy. He imagined it starting not with government, but with one person’s heart leading to another. At the end of his story Dickens says: “And it was said of [Mr. Scrooge from that time forth] that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us.” Will you put on the new clothes that have been a gift for you since the beginning of time? Have you received the child gift-wrapped in swaddling clothes? We have some wonderful new clothes to put on, not just for Christmas, but forever! The shopping is done; may the wearing begin today.

 

Jeffrey Sumner                                                      December 27, 2009

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THE BIRTH OF THE NEW CREATION

Micah 5: 2-5a; Luke 1: 46-55

 

There have been plenty of fiery debates about when life begins, but I have heard fewer discussions about when salvation was created.  In our anthem today: Tschesnokoff declares that “Salvation is created” and then the people and the angels praise God with “Alleluias” which means they give God praise!  The words to prepare for worship today were written by John Brownlow Geyer in 1967 when he was a tutor at Cheshunt College, Cambridge. Says Geyer: “At that time a good deal of work was going on round the corner (involving a number of American research students) producing living cells. The hymn attempts to illustrate the Christian doctrine of baptism in relation to those experiments.” [Linda Jo McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993, 495] But the words to the first line of our “words to prepare for worship” seem to describe the Christ of Bethlehem. It is a reading from the gospel of John, at the end of our Christmas Eve services that will declare: “In the beginning (meaning at the creation of the world) the Word was with God (that Jesus Christ was there!) and the Word was God! (Jesus Christ is one of the persons of God) … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us! (” [exclamations mine] Did you note Geyer’s words in your bulletin? “A new creation comes to life and grows.” (Could that describe the eternal Christ who was in the beginning and the end; who came to earth to dwell as Jesus Christ; who was prophesied to be born on earth in Bethlehem; and who was born with unfortunate timing for the young and unmarried Mary, but who was born with divinely providential timing?)  Matthew quoted Isaiah who, seven hundred years earlier, said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called ‘Immanuel.’ All of a sudden a teenage girl, not married to a man but promised to him, is told she is expecting a child; and he is not the father! To the human race that information would be called ‘good news.’ We are amazed that Mary indicates no anxiety about sharing this news with her mother, her father, or her betrothed. The song continues: “As Christ’s new body takes on flesh in blood.” That is the doctrine of Christmas called the Incarnation. It’s the time when God became flesh and lived among us on Earth. That is the heart of Christmas; And the story unfolds in the little town of Bethlehem. Geyer’s words conclude Tschesnokoff concludes his salvation anthem: with a restored universe that sings “alleluia!” A restored universe singing “Alleluia!” is the motivation that drives the holy heart of God. That’s what God wants to hear!  Perhaps some people can’t wait until Christmas, and others until their wedding, and others until retirement, but God can’t wait until the universe is restored, delivered from its pockets of killing, and greed, and jealousy, and brokenness. So this week, the earth or more specifically the human race, may not yet celebrate the fulfillment of salvation, but it will celebrate its birth. 

 

When will you date your own salvation? Is it when you were born because you were, even then, a child of God, loved by God? Is it from your profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior? Or do you date your salvation from the first Easter when Jesus arose from the dead; or from the first Christmas when “Christ the Savior” was born? This will be a season of personal recognition for many insightful people who will name the time when they knew that salvation was theirs.

 

Ages ago when the Northern Kingdom of Israel still existed because the Assyrians had not yet conquered its capital, Micah was preaching to any political figure and common citizen who would listen. His words were directed in exceptionally harsh ways to his faithless fellow citizens who had allowed oppression to flourish and government to grow increasingly crooked.  Micah had no use for politicians because they allowed gross injustices to continue.  Micah, who had heard from God in the matter, was pegging his hopes on a person in the line of David who would carry on the great tradition of justice and peace. Ever since King David chose Jerusalem as his capital, his hometown of Bethlehem had become less and less significant. Yet it was still the hometown of the King! It was where David’s father and his grandfather were from! Micah believed God when God told him that another king, also a shepherd king, who would be a proponent of peace and justice, would be born in Bethlehem. With the long lens of Christianity, we look with excitement as the glass slipper fits the infant foot of a baby born in Bethlehem to a virgin named Mary. She was not having a child by her fiancé Joseph, much to his early surprise and his later acceptance. She was having a child by God. Who would have believed it? Even Mary wasn’t sure that the angel who delivered the message to her had all the answers: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” as the gorgeous King James Version puts her question. (Luke 1:34) When Mary hears the explanation she says “Very well,” or in King James, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1: 38) And then, it is almost as if Mary knew the passion of Micah, the issues of Micah, and perhaps even the issues of God. Out of this young woman’s mouth come words that begin with glory, but they continue with the threat of condemnation like the sermons that Micah must have preached. Listen to this so called “Song of Mary:” “His mercy is for those who fear him…. He has scattered the proud; he has brought down the powerful from their thrones.” (Mary’s words are a history lesson for those who might have forgotten God’s record with such rulers, and an affirmation to the angel that Mary knows God’s heart in these matters.) She goes on: “He has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things.” (Luke 1: 50-53)  Whether Mary is looking back affirming or looking forward hoping, her words are far more fierce than a sheltered girl would know. She is more than a physical handmaid of the Lord; she is also a witness to God as she remembers perhaps, what has taught to her by her parents, or grandparents, or by the local rabbi. She’s got it; she gets who God is, what God has done, and what God is likely to do with a world filled with injustice. She names what God has done before with both rich and poor people. In our day it would be like God confronting those in the news who have made millions for themselves, and comforting those threatened with eviction or bankruptcy. God’s justice wheels are turning for those who, from lay-offs, poor health, or crushing bills, have a water shut-off notice or cars that can’t be driven because of bad tires or no fuel. She sees that when the new creation breaks in “the rich will be sent empty away.” I wonder what Mary would say about executives who got bailouts a year ago and who’ve accepted seven figure salaries and bonuses a year later as others can hardly pay their bills or find work? I wonder what Micah would say to Congress? And more importantly, I wonder what Micah would tell us to do to let to help justice to roll down like waters?  I wond
er what the hard-hitting mother of Jesus would say about my life, or yours?
I think God knows exactly what a new creation will look like in our world, and if I’m right, it doesn’t look like December of 2009. The world needs a new creation; people’s hearts need a new creation; but it won’t happen until some rich people lose their spoon and some powerful people get their comfortable connections dismantled. It won’t happen until people who can’t get health care get it; until people who don’t have enough food have it; and until people who can’t find help can find it. We have a strong man and a strong young woman in our texts today both preaching the same messages. And who is listening? In Bethlehem 2000 years ago, some of the wisest people in the world traveled from the East to see the one born King of the Jews; they set aside their other work and followed a star to find him. Bumper stickers still say “Wise men still seek him.” What will it take to begin to make the world into what God and Micah though it should be, and what Mary and God know it must be?

 

Our world certainly enjoys some wonderful events at Christmas. But hearts tuned for holiness are troubled by what is going on, even after 2000 years. Perhaps the changes don’t need to start in the halls of Washington, or the Temple in Jerusalem. Changes can start in little towns in recessions, like Bethlehem, or the ones sprinkled around Daytona Beach, filled with hard-working people watching for signs of wonder and working for justice even here. So today we honor that Ruth and Boaz, Jesse and David, Mary and Almighty God all chose the little town of Bethlehem as the birthplace of our new creation.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                   December 20, 2009

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