December 2012 Sermons:
"What Is the World Coming To?" — December 2
Luke 21: 25-32
We all have different styles of celebrating Christmas. A couple of my relatives mailed their cards on the Monday after Thanksgiving—which seems too early to me. Other families wait until Christmas Eve to do anything at all for the holidays. I think they enjoy that pressure, because they go through the same mad rush every year. Whether we have our Christmas trees decorated by now, or we don’t plan to have a tree at all, I think we all agree on the meaning of the coming of Jesus Christ. He is God’s greatest gift of joy and hope for the world.
But what about “judgment,” “distress,” and “fear”? We won’t see those words stamped in gold on any Christmas card. And yet, the gospel lesson is about all those things: “judgment,” “distress,” and “fear.” This story of a strange and frightening future seems like a curious choice for today, I know. It’s one of the traditional scripture readings for the first Sunday of Advent. In this season, we look forward to, not only the birth of Jesus, but His second coming at the end of the world.
In the lesson I just read from Luke’s gospel, Jesus is foretelling the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified almost forty years before it. But many historians believe that Luke, the gospel writer, did see the Romans destroy Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and one or two of his disciples may have still been alive when it happened. In this passage from Luke, Jesus predicts that some of his followers will survive the chaos of the future. The people on the Jersey Shore and on Staten Island are suffering through chaos now, with homes and bridges and roads destroyed. Few of us have ever experienced anything that frightening. But during this time of year we get distracted by the traffic and crowds and busyness. We worry about getting our to-do-list done, and making everything just perfect. In this high-pressured season, it’s easy to miss out on “peace on earth and good will to all.”
The theme for the first Sunday of Advent is hope. Christ reminds us to wake up, so we won’t miss His second coming. “The powers of heaven will be shaken,” Jesus predicts in Luke. But He speaks good news, too: “Now when the things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
People have always feared the end of the world. The Mayan calendar ends on December 21, 2012. Many people are speculating that this means the end of the world. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration says there’s no scientific basis for believing that the life as we know it is over at the end of this month, but some folks are saving canned food and bottled water and setting up their Christmas trees in bomb shelters. In every generation, prophets have interpreted eclipses and comets and tsunamis as signs of the end of the world. Remember Y2K? The book, The Late Great Planet Earth? The song, “The Eve of Destruction”? Some preachers said that the bombings of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were signs that God was giving up on us.
Nearly every human life is invaded with natural disaster, with conflict, and occasionally with violence. It’s only natural to wonder why God lets these things happen. Chapter twenty-one of the Gospel of Luke tells us not to fear the darkness or to let it defeat us. Even in our worst times, God is here.
Think an event that made time stop for you. Recalling the event that turned your world upside down, do you mark “the time before” and “the time after” it happened, and changed you forever? People don’t forget what they’re wearing or eating, or where they are standing or sitting, when their marriage breaks up, or when a doctor gives them a terrifying medical diagnosis, or when a family member is arrested.
Today’s gospel reading must have had a shattering effect on the disciples. We can almost see the sun and moon and stars swinging into erratic patterns and hear the waters roar.
The scriptures tell many stories of terrifying moments in the lives of faithful people. Biblical literature teaches us to view the world through the eyes of faith. Think of the Apostle Peter. Like us, he has feelings and fears and makes big mistakes, but his heart is in the right place. You’ll remember that, when Jesus was arrested, Peter mingled with the hostile crowd outside the high priest's house. Three times he was asked if he was a disciple of Jesus, and three times he denied it. Then, when dawn approached, a rooster crowed, and time stood still as Peter remembered Jesus' prediction of his cowardice. Peter interpreted that humiliating experience as a sign of God's coming, and he responded to it with a level of faith and commitment that made a new man of him. He became one of the greatest leaders of the church.
You may decide that those terrifying moments of judgment in your life, have no significance beyond the pain you feel when they happen. You might let the pain fade away, and go on as usual--like the man who said that whenever he feels an urge to get more exercise, he lies down, until the urge goes away.
Or you might decide that shocks to your system are challenges, and that you will rise to meet them. In other words, you rely on your own resources and push yourself to feel better and do better every day. And that approach sometimes works.
There is a third way, the faithful way. You can decide that God has broken into your life for a reason-- to show you the limits of your own power. You can place yourself in His hands. You can lean on God, in prayer, for the strength you need to overcome this challenge. This is the way Christians grow in God’s grace.
Advent is God’s coming into what has been, what is, and what is yet to be. Advent is God’s way of entering into human history. As death came in Advent, so did life. As grief came in Advent, so did possibility. As sorrow came in Advent, so did freedom. God’s redemption makes the whole earth shake. God comes to redeem the present moment. God comes to hold all that is to be. Sin and pain and sorrow are redeemed in the journey of grace. What will you make of those unexpected moments when the sun, moon and stars stand still, when the waves rush in? Will you dismiss them with a shrug? Or will you see them as signs of the Lord's second coming, and respond with hope and trust? Jesus said, “When you see these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Do you hear that? In the midst of tragedy, in the midst of oppression, in the midst of personal loss, raise your head so you can see the Son of God coming near to you. That is the message of Advent.
Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 1:68-79
It's typical of the modern mind! We expect everything to happen immediately. We pop a disk into a CD player and get an hour's worth of Christmas music. We type a few words on "Google," and find the information we need, right away. If we get a flat tire, we make a call on our cell phone, and Triple A sends help. We want instant relief from aches and pains. Take extra strength Tylenol, and voila. No headache!
When we get fast, fast, fast relief, and quick information, it's a good thing. When we have to slow down, we grind our teeth. How about that detour on Lehigh Street that makes it take twice as long to get here from MacArthur Road on a weekday? Have you experienced the lane closure on Route 22 East? Isn't it annoying when the Internet slows down? Inconvenience seems worse during this busy season. Advent is like a winding road with detours and lanes closed, and bumper-to-bumper traffic. That's the kind of road that leads us to the arrival of Jesus. No valleys and hills made low. Advent is not a speedy trip on a superhighway.
During the four weeks before Christmas, we get a taste of what the children of Israel felt when they had to wait three thousand years for their Savior. I'm an impatient person. During Advent the work is huge, with an overwhelming number of details to handle. It's tempting to cut corners, and to try to work faster and faster. This past week has been a time of deliberate slow-down for me. God gave me the time I needed.
The beginning of the gospel of Luke is like a Broadway musical. Have you ever noticed that the main characters are always bursting into song — Mary, Elizabeth, Simeon and Zechariah? Zechariah sings today's gospel reading, known as the Benedictus. Zechariah was a priest in the Jerusalem temple. Amazing things came out of his mouth when he was filled with the Holy Spirit. The Benedictus tells the good news: that God is about to send Jesus to save the world. He announces, with great joy, that his very own son will be part of that story.
Zechariah praises God for having fulfilled His promises to Israel, in the first half of his song. He talks about the historical drama that took place over three thousand years before the arrival of the Messiah. In this world of instant gratification, can we even imagine three thousand years?
Zechariah delivers a prophecy that connects John the Baptist and Jesus with the holy covenant that God made with Abraham and his wife, Sarah, to be their God. In just a few short verses, Zechariah's words trace that covenant through King David and Isaiah and the great prophets of Judaism.
Malachi was one of those. You heard his words in the Old Testament reading for today. Just to give you an idea of the time span of this story, Malachi lived twenty five hundred years after Abraham and four hundred years before Christ was born. Zechariah would have known Malachi's prophecy by heart. Malachi had an important message to share with God's people and here are some of his words: "See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight — indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?"
Many of you are familiar with the Christmas portion of Handel's "Messiah," and the words I just read will be familiar to you. Malachi's prophecy is sung by a baritone with a deep, rich voice. The music is dark and a little scary. The prophecy of Malachi is good news for Zechariah. His son will be a messenger for the Messiah. What an honor!
Zechariah says the second half of his speech to his baby, John, who has just been officially named in front of the congregation. (Something like we will do today for Riley Madison.) Zechariah has done the honors himself. His filled with joy, to have a child at last. He and his wife are old. They are good, righteous people. I can see this little old man looking down at baby John and saying, "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins."
Every parent looks at his or her newborn child and wonders what he or she will become. I'm sure Jennifer and Shawn have thought about this. You are fortunate to have Riley as a blessing in your life. And, as your congregation, we are fortunate to have her, as well. Zechariah has a big advantage over most of us as parents. Zechariah already knows what his son will grow up to be. The Holy Spirit has given him a sneak preview. Do you want to know what will happen to the young people in your life after you are gone? Maybe, or maybe not! But I think we all hope they will live in a more peaceful world than our own.
Peace is the theme of the second Sunday of Advent. God has promised to show us all the path to peace. Neither Zechariah nor his son, John, will live to see how it all turns out. They don't need to see it, and neither do we. Their God, our God, is faithful. We have the New Testament and we know the stories of Jesus, great gifts that Zechariah didn't have. We can take this scripture and story to heart, as we prepare for Christmas. We can examine the dark places in our lives and give them to God. The gift of Jesus makes the difference between a life of quiet desperation and a life of meaning.
Imagine not being able to speak for many months, and getting your speech back just before Christmas. What's the first thing you would say? I'm sure being mute has been a terrible experience for a priest, but he's made it through, with the help of a mighty God. Old Zechariah sings this song after being unable to talk, and he is full of joy.
Our church has had a hard year. Our building has needed a great many repairs, inside and out, and you're provided the funds to do that work. We need new members, and we need the members we have, more than ever. We're starting to get former members back to worship, and that's a great gift from God. We've been trying new ways to reach out. Some have been working better than others. It's not clear to me, how we will be doing five or ten years from now. But we have a challenge before us. You are all precious to God. When a congregation faces difficult times, the song of Zechariah reminds that we have God on our side. With Him, all things are possible. Listen to Zechariah's words again: "Blessed is the Lord God of Israel, for He has looked favorably upon His people and redeemed them. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet in the way of peace."
Let us pray. As we look forward to Christmas, help us to remember the joy Zechariah felt when he welcomed his son, the prophet who would become John the Baptist. We pray that hope and peace will fill our lives. May the light of your glory flood our hearts, the wisdom of your Spirit fill our minds, and the joy of the angels come into our souls! AMEN
Today is the third Sunday of Advent—also known as the Sunday of Joy. Sharon and Bob have just lighted three of our Advent candles. You can’t miss the joy theme, because it’s on your bulletin covers. In light of the shooting deaths of all those children in Connecticut a couple of days ago, Advent joy may seem inappropriate to some of you. But the Apostle Paul is insisting that we can rejoice even in the midst of chaos and sorrow and despair.
When I was writing this sermon, the first announcements of the school shootings appeared on the Internet. The media reports intensified our fears. A pastor I know in the Lehigh Valley, who has three young children, expressed her emotions on Facebook, when the story first came on the news. Here’s what she said: “As I watch this television coverage, I feel completely helpless. I am going to pick my babies up at school now. I never want to stop hugging them.”
Tragedy can shatter our faith in God. Because of the school shootings, several pastors in this area have decided to rename the pink candle of joy, the “candle of remembrance” for today. Even though I heard about this, I decided to go with the joy theme this morning, and not to replace the first hymn with a more somber one.
All this past week, I have been meditating on Paul’s words in our New Testament passage, from his Letter to the Philippians. This is the most joyous of Paul’s letters. Paul writes that joy in the Lord isn’t reserved only for times of celebration. Joy can be found in almost any circumstance. Remember singing that song in Sunday School, “I’ve got that joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart, TO STAY”? Those last two words, “to stay,” are important. We can have joy, deep down in our hearts, even we feel shocked and sad and defeated.
Why did Paul write these particular words about not worrying? Obviously, the congregation in Philippi was worried. The small city of Philippi had been founded in northern Greece by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, as a colony for retired soldiers. It was a remote outpost of Rome, on an important trade route—something like the stockades in the western United States in the 1800’s. Why did the Emperor want retired centurions in that particular part of the world? He required every Roman citizen to worship him as God. Probably, Caesar knew they’d stay loyal to Rome and to him.
Paul was fond of the Philippian congregation. Obviously most of these Christians were nothing like the retired soldiers in that outpost. Street corner evangelism would never work for them, in a place where even professing to be Christian was illegal. They would have had to keep a low profile. He advises them to be careful and gentle and faithful.
As Paul writes this letter, he isn’t exactly relaxing in a lounge chair by the pool. He’s on death row in a Roman prison. The word, “rejoice,” in the fourth verse, can also be translated as, “farewell.” He is sure to be with Jesus soon— he believes that Jesus will come to earth in his own lifetime, and even if He doesn’t meet the Lord on earth, he, Paul, will be in heaven in a matter of days or weeks. Many people in Paul’s situation would be saying, “What’s the use of being alive? Let the Romans execute me.” And yet, Paul rejoices in His Lord, Jesus Christ. His cup is half full, rather than half empty. His faith is unshakeable. Paul tells the Philippians that a person who prays can endure any hardship.
Listen to verse six again: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.” Paul’s answer to fear is constant prayer.
“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a popular show for children when our daughter was growing up. In real life, the late Mr. Rogers was a Presbyterian pastor, the Reverend Fred Rogers. He followed Paul’s advice and was careful and gentle and faithful. Once he said these words: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
Mr. Rogers went on to say, “To this day, in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted when I realize that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.” Wise words from a wise woman, Mrs. Rogers! When we can’t stop tragedy from happening, when we can’t be there to shelter kids from a shooter, or to save a loved one from pain, we can still protect and comfort the survivors.
It may seem unrealistic to follow Paul’s advice to the Philippians. In the darkness of our lives, it can be hard to find a bright side. And yet Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord, ALWAYS.” This doesn’t mean we have to be bubbly or giggly all the time. Jesus wasn’t happy all the time. He felt pain deeply. Think of the time in the temple, when He knocked over the tables of the money changers. Think of him when He wept for His dead friend, Lazarus. Think of Him, sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. And yet, Jesus healed, and He danced at weddings, and He changed the water into wine. He felt joy.
Paul isn’t writing with smiley-faced joy. He is in prison and he knows he will never get out alive. He’s writing about the joy, deep down inside, that holds us up when we can’t hold ourselves up any more. He’s writing about the assurance of our Lord Jesus Christ, that even in the midst of the dark, we will get through whatever happens, and that some good can come after tragedy. Paul expects Jesus to come again to save him any day. He rejoices even in the face of death, because he knows God will raise him up again.
I think Paul is saying we should pray to God about every area of life. We should have such a good relationship with Him that we feel comfortable praying for small blessings, like good weather for Christmas Eve services, or a good parking space near Barnes and Noble, or enough money to buy fleeced Philadelphia Eagles “hoodies” for every one of your grandchildren for Christmas. Prayer is for big matters and small ones, too. It brings us God’s peace, a deep peace in the middle of life’s storms. God’s peace can keep guard around our hearts like a battalion of Roman soldiers protecting a treasure chest. If something matters to us, it matters to God. Find your joy in the Lord, no matter what happens, always. Again, I say, “Rejoice.”
The Christmas gifts we give, speak volumes about us, and the way we receive gifts from other people, says even more about who we are! Every family has its own Christmas traditions. I’m sure your family has unwritten rules for unwrapping your presents.
What’s the best way to open Christmas gifts? No two families are alike in the way they do that. Some of our rules have to do with timing. Many of you will unwrap presents right after you get home from church tonight. Others will wait until tomorrow. Children will leap out of bed at five a.m. Their parents may want a little more sleep, but eventually they’ll give up and go downstairs.
What’s the speed of unwrapping at your house? Maybe you have a family Santa Claus, and you take turns opening one at a time, while people sit around and say, “ooh” and “aah” over each gift. That’s the most restrained approach. Or you might just tear into your stacks of presents and leave piles of torn wrapping paper everywhere.
Christmas isn’t only for children. Fellow grown-ups, let’s not be overly adult about it. We’re really excited to open our gifts! No more last-minute trips to the mall. We’ve ordered and shopped and wrapped, and now we are ready for the grand finale.
Our most important Christmas present isn’t a package that’s waiting under the tree. It’s the gift that’s here right now. God has given Him to all of us together, on this holy night. Everyone needs the Son of God. Jesus is the best gift we will ever receive. He came into Mary and Joseph’s lives as a gift—their firstborn son. He was a gift for the shepherds, too: “To you is born, this day, in the city of David, a savior.”
The baby Jesus is a lot harder to open than any other present. We won’t be able to completely unwrap Him tonight, or tomorrow. The process of unwrapping Him may take our whole lives. During the time He lived on Earth—the child of Mary and Joseph and Israel—He kept on getting unwrapped, layer after layer. The gift of Jesus was unwrapped even more, as He grew and taught and healed and lived and died and rose from the dead. More and more people recognized God’s gift, and they chose to follow Him. And even today, as the church struggles with social changes and economic pressures, we keep on unwrapping Jesus. He is the gift of “God With Us.”
We need God’s Word to guide us and Jesus is our guide. The love of God was given to us in different ways, through His Son’s life and ministry. When He was born in that stable in Bethlehem, the baby Jesus was like a wrapped package that hadn’t been opened yet. As He taught people and healed them and made them well, the ribbon and wrapping were pulled off. People could see who He was. Unto them, a gift was given. But not everyone was as happy as we are, with God’s great gift!
People started calling Him a troublemaker, and they killed Him for it. And that was even sadder than a broken present on Christmas morning. But the wonderful present of Jesus Christ hasn’t stayed broken. God raised Jesus from the dead. God works in this world to save what’s broken. The world is still broken, and so are we. But unto us is born a Savior---our Christmas gift.
The baby Jesus is the perfect gift for those who think they have everything. The best presents we receive are the ones that take the longest to unwrap. Tonight, and tomorrow, and all the years of our lives, let’s keep on unwrapping!
Have you ever kept a New Year's resolution for an entire year? Most people’s resolutions are forgotten by Valentine’s Day. The problem is that New Year's resolutions are so safe, and so sensible, and so boring. We decide to lose ten pounds by spring, or to wash the car every week. We’re afraid to make bigger changes in our lives—especially spiritual changes that might mean suffering or sacrifice.
Luke is the only gospel writer who tells a story about the child Jesus, growing up. Doesn’t that seem strange? We’d like to know more about this little boy. This story is about a family trip. Jesus is twelve years old. All adult men of Israel were required to travel to the Jerusalem temple three times a year for religious festivals. Passover drew thousands of Jewish males from all over the world. It was the highest holy day of all. Jesus has been raised in the Jewish tradition and He’s getting ready for His Bar Mitzvah. A twelve-year-old boy was almost an adult in the Judean culture. You can imagine how much the holy city must have fascinated Him, after a quiet life in a small village.
Joseph and Mary were religious people. With their friends, neighbors and relatives from Nazareth, they had made several pilgrimages to Jerusalem every year in a caravan. But as soon as the festivals were over, they had always hit the road. I’m sure they were anxious to tackle the chores that were piling up at home. Joseph was a carpenter. He would have had jobs, back at the shop, waiting to be finished. Mary would have had household work—cooking, cleaning and caring for their other children.
On the other hand, Jesus isn’t in a rush to return to the carpenter shop. He loves the city. It never occurs to Him to tell His parents that He wants to stick around in the temple. Jesus has found His calling and is just getting started, learning about His heavenly Father. He can’t wait to ask the rabbis questions about the meaning of life.
When children disappear, parents are terrified. Mary and Joseph are a day away from Jerusalem when they notice that Jesus isn’t with their caravan. Imagine how relieved, and at the same time how angry, they feel when they find their son in the temple after searching for three days. He’s in the process of distancing Himself from His parents—just like all teenagers do. In this story, Jesus doesn’t seem sorry for scaring them. He hasn’t felt lost at all. He’s found His calling. “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” He asks, as if finding Him chatting with religious leaders would be the most obvious thing in the world.
If He’d been our child and had gone missing for that long, He would have been grounded for the next two years! But Mary and Joseph don’t overreact. They are exceptionally wise, and they’ve known, all along, that Jesus is the Son of God. And as for their son, He’s completely at home in God’s house.
The best New Year's resolution a Christian can make is to help fulfill Jesus’ plan to transform the world. God's in the business of transformation. An electrical transformer takes high voltage and transforms it into energy that we can use. At the stable in Bethlehem, God came to us and gave us Jesus, who, in His life, transforms the love and power of God into salvation for humankind. What can we do in the coming year, to become lights in the darkness? Can we be part of the transformation of the world that Jesus has started? First, we must go deeply into the Word. Second, we must go widely into the world.
First—the Word. At some point when He was very young, Jesus had discovered that He was God’s Son. When Jesus answers the call of God in Jerusalem, He first goes to the temple. He wants to understand God's Word as written in the scriptures. He wants to learn what God has promised for His people. And so He talks to the Bible scholars, and apparently amazes them with His answers—and even more with His questions! Soon, He will be ready to teach and preach and heal. And when we next see Jesus in Luke’s gospel, He’s getting ready to start His ministry, and is being baptized at the Jordan River.
Second--The World. Being about God's business doesn't mean we just sit in the temple -- or the church -- all day long and talk about the meaning of life. As a child, Jesus already seems to have a sense of mission. And yet, He does follow Joseph and Mary back to dreary old Nazareth.
At Christmas, we step out of our own self-centered existence. With the birth of Jesus, God redeems us from our ordinary world. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. Try to think of some ways your own life can reflect the presence of Jesus. What if instead of just working out for forty-five minutes at the gym every day, you also decided to join a prayer-chain and pray for fifteen minutes every night? What if you volunteered to work at the Animal Shelter instead of just taking care of your own pet? What if you decided to read the Bible for an hour every day instead of spending the same amount of time on the Internet, and then you joined a Bible study group? What if your family spent quality time together by going on a mission trip to help restore flood-damaged homes on the Jersey Shore?
Luke’s strange and beautiful story from Jesus’ childhood could be the story of any family who finds that God is making a special claim on one of its members. If you are the person who feels called to follow Jesus and make disciples of all nations, you know how hard it can be to make choices that anger and worry your family. If you are called to support a family member who wants to go into ministry, you know how helpless and scared you can feel. Twelve years ago, I went to a New Year’s Eve worship service at a Presbyterian Church. At the end of the sermon, everyone in the congregation received a blue and white star with glitter. Each star had a different inspirational noun printed on it—words like FAITH, LOVE, and HOPE. The pastor gave out the stars at random, or so it seemed. The word on my star was COMMITMENT. I had been thinking, in the previous year, about taking early retirement from the library and going to Princeton Seminary. I’d have to make serious lifestyle changes, in order to make my dream come true. Most importantly, I would need to bring my family on board. The sermon I heard, that New Year’s Eve, was a message from God about commitment. I decided to follow my dream and see it through.
Tuesday is the first day of a brand New Year. The time is right. What do you resolve to do for the rest of your life?
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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