December 2009 Sermons:
John the Baptist has some rough edges, that’s for sure! His preaching style is hard to take, especially before Christmas when we want to be merry and bright. This prophet is not one of my favorite role models. John wears a coat of camel hair. He lives as a hermit and eats insects for breakfast. John is the opposite of televangelists like Joel Osteen. The modern preacher from Houston wears five-thousand-dollar suits and preaches sermons designed to make us feel good about ourselves. John the Baptist does the opposite. We’d send John to a workshop on preaching, if he were in Lehigh Presbytery. In a pulpit exchange, we would make it a point to ask not to have John preach in our church!
Believe it or not, the people of Jerusalem flocked from their homes to the rocky desert, to hear the sermons of John the Baptist. In today’s gospel reading, John announces that God is going to liberate the people. Their savior is coming soon. No more Roman soldiers will breathe down their necks! Just come to the Jordan and let me baptize you, and you’ll be ready to welcome the Messiah, John preached. John’s message was good news to peasants, but it sounded like treason to King Herod.
John's word to us today is based on a prophecy of Isaiah in the Old Testament. Isaiah had promised that a way would be prepared for the anointed one of God. According to Isaiah, God will smooth out our rough places and build, in us, a highway for His beloved Son.
When a king had to travel across a desert or over a mountain in ancient times, an army of workers walked a few miles ahead of his royal party to create a roadway. Two thousand five hundred years ago, there were no explosives that could carve pathways through mountains. Laborers just had to pick up rocks, one by one. Now we drive through the Lehigh Tunnel on the Turnpike Extension all the time. We take for granted the complex engineering that can break holes in solid rock--holes wide enough for four cars to pass. What a powerful message Isaiah preached to the Israelites—that God would flatten the mountains and smooth the rocky cliffs of their lives by sending a great king to lead them. His is a prophecy of joy.
When you get your Christmas decorations out, what’s it like? Are you excited, or do you see it as a chore? Creating beauty out of a stack of dusty boxes and bags is a challenge, and it takes time. Will we miss some of the holiness of Christmas because we’re buried in the bubble lights and tinsel from the attic? The best time we had decorating the tree, in our family, was when our daughter was seven or eight years old. She invited a couple of her Jewish friends over to help, and it was a treat for everyone. We shared the fun of Christmas, instead of keeping it for ourselves.
John the Baptist knows how to welcome the Lord. He tells his listeners to make preparations of a different kind. We must get our hearts ready for Him, and that will be an undertaking. Let’s look at the calendar for the days between now and December 25. Have we set aside time for worship and prayer? Are we so busy, making sure to do what people want us to do, that we have no time to celebrate Christmas with those we love? Your mom, or your dad, or your child, may need you to visit them, more than your neighbors need to see a plastic reindeer on your lawn. Preparing the way of the Lord means the rough places must be made plain.
Today, the most common meaning of the word, REPENT, is to “seek forgiveness.” The French root of the word, repense, means to turn around, to change direction, or to think again. As we prepare the way of the Lord, He must become the King of our lives. The rush of the holidays tends to take over. There’s always another errand to do, another coupon to use before it expires. Don’t get sucked up in the pressure. Let go of the clutter. Do your Christmas cards in January and bake fewer cookies, if you have to. Jesus won’t mind.
It’s only when we put our own lives in order that our hearts can open to welcoming Him. We are on rocky ground if we aren’t in the right relationship with God. Let’s put Him in control and set aside our pride. If we clear the way, the Messiah’s path will be as smooth as the Turnpike extension on a sunny day. We celebrate Communion together this morning, and that’s God’s invitation for Jesus to come to us. Those who went to the wilderness to see John the Baptist were challenged to move in a new direction. We can deal with personal issues that are holding back the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. We need to forgive and let go of the pain of the past.
We’d like to be able to hear the prophecy of John the Baptist as good tidings of great joy. And yet, we are preoccupied with bad news about the stock market and unemployment and fatal accidents.
Here are some dream headlines written by high school students:"Peace declared all over the earth!" "Hunger and poverty to be eliminated by year's end!" "No reports of child abuse in the U.S. for over a year!" "Religious tolerance at an all time high!" "Vaccine for all forms of cancer discovered!" "Officials to investigate complete absence of violent crime!" Wouldn't it be wonderful to see headlines like this? "Not very realistic," you say. And you’d be right. But with God, all things are possible.
Right under our noses, a rose is blooming. It’s going to turn up the corners of the concrete pavement around us. A tender shoot is growing, from the stump of Jesse. But someone is standing in the way. It isn’t Pontius Pilate, and it isn’t Herod. Those men are long gone. We’re getting ready for a new king. But who is standing in the way? I’m afraid it’s you and me.
Step aside! The Savior of the World is coming. Make His path straight. Sweep the front steps of your soul. Know that the spirit of the Almighty will be working, not only in you, but in us all, to prepare a home Jesus can call His own.
LET US PRAY.
We thank you, Gracious God, for shaking us up. Help us to focus upon your will and your way. Help us to find the way of your Son Jesus Christ, as we stumble through the wilderness. O God, we pray that you will be in our days and in our hearts.
John H. Walton and others, The IVP Biblical Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 2000), 625.
‘Turn Around,’ “Congregational Life,“ Seasons of the Spirit, Advent, Christmas and Epiphany 2003, p. 80.
Philippians 4:4- 8.
Our New Testament lesson comes from Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi. Philippi was a hub of the Roman Empire in northern Greece. The Christian church there was the first congregation Paul started in Europe. It was probably his favorite church. The Philippians had sent Paul a lot of money to help start a new church in Rome. They had even sent a man to assist him. His letter is a thank-you note, but it’s a sermon, too.
Paul has gotten word that there’s been fighting in the Philippian congregation. Two women, who had been in on the ground floor of Paul’s ministry in Philippi, are squabbling. Their feud has disturbed the peace and made a bad impression on people. This makes Paul sad. Writing from a Roman jail, where he will soon be going on trial for his life, Paul tells the Philippians they are always with Christ, no matter what.
Paul’s epistle to the Philippians radiates joy. In fact, pastors call it, “The Letter of Joy.” Paul uses the Greek word for “joy,” eight times in the passage Debbie read to us. He writes, "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you."
Paul’s optimism is surprising, if you happen to know what’s going on in his life when he sends this letter. He is a prisoner in Rome. He’s old and chronically ill. Not only that, but he is infamous in the city, as the leader of an unpopular religion. He ought to be miserable. Wouldn’t you be? And yet, Paul is joyful.
Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord.” He writes it sixteen times in this letter. Paul doesn’t mean that Christians should ignore their worries. He doesn’t say that the dangers of being Christian, or poor health, shouldn’t scare them. He’s saying that life circumstances should never cancel out joy in the Lord. Never! He ought to know.
Although our life journeys are different, everyone has burdens to carry. Instead of dwelling on bad fortune, Paul writes, we Christians should notice how Christ is shaping us into His likeness. Think of what He has done for you, and in you, and to you.
I have a photograph in my office of a brave woman named Lynn Marek, who was the secretary at my first church. She had “stage five” cancer when the church hired her. After her diagnosis, she had been given a year to live, and Lynn outlived that prediction by four years. She was undergoing chemotherapy when she worked at the church. Her weekly treatments made her sick all the time. I believe it was Lynn’s Christian faith that kept her going. In the last summer of her life, she summoned up the energy to run a huge fund-raising event and to coordinate a high school reunion. Lynn died shortly after Christmas last year. Once that fall, when we had been working in the office together, I had commented to her, “Under your circumstances, I wonder how you are so cheerful.” Lynn answered with conviction, “I have been so fortunate in my life. Because Jesus loves me so much, I’m on top of my circumstances, even though I don’t feel good.”
God has given us much to rejoice about, even in a society full of stress, even in bodies riddled with cancer or stooped with chronic illness. When we rejoice in the Lord, we get into the habit of acting in gentle ways toward the people around us. Lynn certainly did—with every member of our church and every person she talked to on the phone.
Paul tells the Philippian congregation how to find the peace that passes understanding. He encourages them to rejoice in the Lord always. Think about it. People are able to accomplish far more when they are joyful, than when they are angry. If you know somebody who sings at work, I’ll bet that person is one who rejoices in the Lord. Try singing when you are grinding your teeth! It can’t be done.
Paul knows that people who live in the heart of Christ can be joyful, no matter where they are. If we don’t make a habit of rejoicing in the Lord, Paul says, we are not witnessing for Christ. Paul advises the Philippian congregation to let their “gentleness be known.” How can we do that, especially during the holidays? Are we gentle when we wait in line at the post office with piles of packages? Are we gentle with store employees at the mall? Are we gentle at family gatherings and office parties? Do we snarl or grumble or honk our horns in traffic? How can we celebrate Christmas in a faithful way that shows the world our joy in the Lord?
Gospel joy is always shared joy. I read a true story of two women who found a way to rejoice. A young couple drove through a small town in New Hampshire and spotted a sign in front of an old house. It said, "Antiques." The travelers stopped, knocked on the door, and were greeted by two women. The ladies invited them into their living room for tea. After a pleasant conversation, the young man asked one of the women if they could see the antiques. She replied, sheepishly, "You’re looking at them." She was referring to the women themselves, not to their furniture.
The other woman explained that when they had moved to town, they had not known anyone. They were lonely and wanted friends. So they hit on the idea of the antique sign, hoping that tourists would visit them. The plan had worked very well! They had made friends among the few people who stopped every week to look at the “antiques.” Soon they had a group of casual acquaintances who visited them regularly. The women commented that they had never intended to trick anyone. They hadn’t advertised anything for sale. One of the women added, "I hope God will forgive us for our scheme, and we hope that you aren’t angry with us." Those women rejoiced in the Lord. They hadn’t just sat in their rocking chairs, feeling old and lonely. Instead, they had found a way to show hospitality. They had created a kind of family for themselves.
This is Joy Sunday in the church year. This is the day, not to feel pressured to get things done, but to feel the peace that passes understanding. The pink candle that the Faisettys lit this morning, signifies joy. We are a family. Some of you were baptized in this church as infants, and have never known any other church home. Others have been involved with dozens of churches, but somehow this church has become your church. Others have tried to find the meaning of life in your career or your service to others. Finally you have learned that the grace of God makes your life worthwhile. Do we have joy, here at the First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua? Yes, I believe we do.
For many Christians, there is no more stressful time than the two weeks before Christmas. Each day until the twenty-fifth of December, remember to write down one good thing that happens to you—even if it’s just that a stranger lets you ahead of them in the Wal-Mart check-out line, or that you get a Christmas card from a friend. May you rejoice in the Lord in this Advent, as you have never rejoiced before!
Let us pray.
Dear God, on this third Sunday of Advent, we thank you for showing us that we are loved beyond measure by giving us your Son. He is our strength and our redeemer. We choose this day to live in the joy of Christ, our Lord. AMEN
W. Sibley Towner, “Exegesis: Philippians 4, www.goodpreacher.com, December 4, 2009.
I Thessalonians 4:3-4.
Lynn A. Marek, Administrative Assistant, First Presbyterian Church of Atlantic Highlands, NJ, September 2008.
Philippians 4: 9.
The Reverend Willard "Buzz" Stevens, “You’re Looking At Them,” unpublished sermon preached in Phoenix, Arizona: First United Methodist Church, quoted by David Mosser, sermon on Philippians 4:4-7, www.goodpreacher.com
Christmas is just five days away! The tree’s up. The presents are almost wrapped, and the cards are mailed. The colored lights are in the windows. A wreath hangs from the front door. Everything’s ready—or, if it isn’t, it will be in a day or two! But we’re still in Advent. We need to be careful not to rush the birth of Jesus. That’s why we’re saving our favorite Christmas carols for our candlelight services this Thursday.
I love the gospel story about the cousins, Mary and Elizabeth. Elizabeth is old. She’s the wife of the priest, Zechariah. Elizabeth is miraculously pregnant with the baby who will be John the Baptist. They live in the hill country of Judea. That’s a three-hour walk north from Galilee. Mary has just learned, from the Angel Gabriel, that she will be the mother of Jesus. She’s walked, all by herself, to Elizabeth’s house. Mary must want to see her cousin very badly. Elizabeth greets Mary warmly, and she says, “Blessed are you!” We expect the two women to keep on talking about babies. But, all of a sudden, Mary is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she starts to sing. Mary’s song isn’t a lullaby or a Christmas carol. It’s a song of liberation.
We tend to sentimentalize the mother of Jesus. In pictures, she always looks beautiful and peaceful. But if she is peaceful, it isn’t because of her situation. It’s in spite of it. Mary is poor, like most Jews in Palestine were. They had no middle class. A small group of rich people, most of whom were Romans, lived luxurious lives. They spent more money, in a single day, than a Jewish laborer earned in a year.
Mary is no more than fourteen years old. She has no education. She’s engaged, and her fiancé, Joseph, is surely suspicious about her pregnancy. Her parents don’t seem to be around to help her. Questions from her husband-to-be, poverty and scandal, and a baby coming—it’s a lot for a fourteen-year-old to deal with. She will give birth in a stable, surrounded by animals, far from home. Mary’s life is a mess.
But in the midst of Mary’s mess, there’s a message. God uses surprising people. In Genesis, God had selected elderly, childless Abraham, and he became the father of great nations. God had chosen Moses. We know, from the story of the burning bush in Exodus, that Moses couldn’t speak well. We also know that was wanted for murder in Egypt. And yet, he became the liberator of God’s people. God will pick Bethlehem, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, for Jesus’s birthplace. God has chosen Mary to show us what a faithful disciple should be like. Mary, like most of us, wants her life to count for something. She’s just a child, but she believes the angel of the Lord, and she willingly carries God’s Son. A famous preacher once wrote, “Jesus Christ came, not to make life easy, but to make people great.”
Mary’s song is the first preaching of the good news in the gospel of Luke. The news she sings is good for the powerless---but not for the mighty. Kings will wait on tables, and servants will feast. Listen again: "(God) has shown strength with (God’s) arm, (God) has scattered the proud... (God) has brought down the powerful... and lifted up the lowly. (God) has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty."
Mary is gentle. But, she isn’t meek or mild. This Jewish peasant girl tells it like it is. Mary raises and praises a God who will overturn everything. We, who are so comfortably middle-class, might end up on the bottom. Is this something to celebrate? I might be one of the rich ones who is going to be sent away empty. Our family has a nice new home in a suburb. We have two cars. I have a good job, health insurance and a pension plan. I have enough food and clothes and too many shoes. Mary’s song is good news for the poor, but probably not for people like me. Still, I know that the great reversal will come. I need to live the song that Mary sings.
The poor are all around us. Millions of families in other nations don’t share our high standard of living. But we prefer not to hear about them. I avoid driving on Seventh Street downtown in the dark. In fact, I always lock my car when I travel in poor neighborhoods. I don’t even like to go into Wal-Mart on Saturday night. I prefer shopping in high-end stores the poor can’t afford, and I’m not proud of that.
Like Mary, who stood for the poor, we can stand for the poor. You and I can feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. We help people through our church—the caring place, the Mitten Patch, the Whitehall food bank. And, if we can no longer do it ourselves, we can support and pray for people who serve the poor for us—not just at Christmas, but all year. We middle-class people might need to be knocked down before we can be lifted up. We need to see how poor we are, in spirit, before we can become rich in giving.
Are we ready for Christmas? Are we ready for the Savior who will turn the world upside down? Christmas isn’t just for young, beautiful, rich people like the ones in television ads. Christmas is for those who have known sadness and hardship. Grief isn’t the final word. God’s joy is deeper than our troubles. If joy can find its way into Mary’s heart during this frightening time for her, there can be no place or time that has no joy. Let’s try to live Mary’s song. Let’s let the great reversal happen in our hearts, now, before God’s great reversal comes.
Christmas is all about seeing what might be, not just what is. Elizabeth saw what might be, and she welcomed her frightened cousin to stay with her for three months. Mary envisioned what the world could be like, for all of us, when she rejoiced in bearing God’s Son. Jesus saw what life on earth might become, when He came to save us.
When our wrapping paper is cleaned up and the decorations are put away, we need to join Jesus and help Him change the world. Each of us has a role to play. It may be collecting canned food or frozen turkeys or gently used coats to help a family survive the winter. It might mean contributing to our racial-ethnic colleges so needy students can attend. It might consist of helping a poor single mother downtown pay the electric bill. Mary’s baby is going to accomplish great things. Will you have the faith to follow Him?
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, descend to us, we pray, and share your life with us, that we may rise with you. We remember how you picked ordinary people to take with you on your journey. We pray that you will help us to discover, together, who you are. AMEN
Luke 1: 26-35.
Henri Daniel-Rops, Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1962), 152-3.
Exodus 3: 1-12.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 14.
You can tell a lot about families from the ways we open our Christmas presents. Does your family have the same routine every year? In our family, one person gets to play Santa Claus on Christmas morning, without a red outfit or a beard. That person has a lot of power. Santa hands a wrapped present to each person in sequence. Everybody takes turns opening one gift at a time, and we admire each one. Somebody writes each present down on a list, so we can send thank-you notes later. We bag the torn wrapping paper and ribbon as we go. It’s so methodical and adult. I like this procedure now--- but as a child, I would have hated it. A big family with young children could never be that patient. When we kids were growing up, we jumped out of bed at five a.m. –or earlier—on Christmas morning. Each of us dove into our own pile of presents, and we had everything unwrapped in fifteen or twenty minutes. Our parents weren’t even up yet.
Tonight is the time when our excitement is highest. We’ve decorated and shopped and ordered and wrapped and cooked and mailed. Now—at last—we can enjoy Christmas Eve. It’s almost time to start unwrapping. Let’s not be TOO adult about this, all you fellow grown-ups. Every one of us needs to receive presents, as well as to give them. We need to see signs of love. We need to know that somebody cares about what we need and what we enjoy. We need happy surprises! And, most especially, we need to receive the gift from God that we celebrating tonight.
Jesus came into the lives of Mary and Joseph as a gift—a firstborn son to continue their families and their heritage. He came to the shepherds as a gift. He comes to us as a gift, too. The most important Christmas present isn’t something that is waiting under your tree at home. It’s Jesus. He is God’s Christmas present to us and He is here with us tonight. He’s the gift of God With Us.
Jesus is quite a bit harder to unwrap than a crock-pot or a ski jacket, even harder than an Apple computer. We must be patient. It has taken us a couple of thousand years to unwrap Him, and we’re not finished yet! We won’t be able to unwrap Jesus tonight, or tomorrow, or in the next twelve days. As Jesus lived on this earth, He kept getting unwrapped, layer by layer. The gift kept getting unwrapped, as Jesus grew and taught and lived and healed and died and rose. We’ll continue to unwrap the gift of God with us, as Christianity grows with the times. Over time, we will grow as individuals, too, but Jesus will never stop giving to us. He’s with us every day—not just on Christmas.
Families unwrap their presents in many different ways. In the gift of Jesus, we get God’s love in many forms, according to our needs. When the baby Jesus was born, He was like a gift-wrapped box that hadn’t been opened yet. As He taught and healed and helped people and made them well, His ribbon and wrapping paper were taken off. More and more people saw Him as God’s gift to the world, and they chose to follow him. But the “powers that were” thought He was a troublemaker and killed Him—which is a lot sadder than a present that gets broken on Christmas morning. But Jesus didn’t stay broken. God works in this world to fix what is broken. God raised Jesus from the dead. The world is broken---it was then and it is now. And so are we. But the babe of Bethlehem lives on.
For unto us is born a Savior who is Christ the Lord. That’s our Christmas present tonight, and tomorrow, and through the twelve days of Christmas, and all the years of your life. May we keep on unwrapping!
In the holiness of this night, O God, all is now calm; all has become bright. For you are waiting just outside — waiting for us to let you in. Help us to welcome this babe of Bethlehem, your son Jesus, as our Lord and our Savior and the very best Christmas gift. AMEN.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
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