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February 2013 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"The Greatest of These" — February 3
"Glow in the Dark"
— February 10
"The Ice Will Melt" — February 13
"Whose God is the Best and the Brightest?"
— February 17
"Do Not Be Afraid" — February 24


“The Greatest of These”
February 3, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

I Corinthians 13:1-13

Some words from the Bible are so well-known that we don’t really think about their meaning anymore. A good example is the Apostle Paul’s chapter on love, First Corinthians 13. Another is Psalm 23. But we like to hear those familiar words. They are comforting, and they remind us that God’s truth is eternal.

Many people have memorized the King James Version of Paul’s words on love. Carol just read a modern translation from your pew Bible. I’m going to read the seventeenth-century words, because the older language is closer to the meaning Paul intended.

“Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.”

In 1611, the King of England issued an edict to translate the Bible into the language of the common people. That King James translation, the one produced in Shakespearean England, was the only English version that existed until the 1950’s. Many of us grew up hearing the old-fashioned words in church, and some of us still prefer to read the famous passages read from the seventeenth-century translation. I almost never use a modern translation of the 23rd Psalm at funerals, or I Corinthians 13, at weddings, for that reason.

"Charity." That’s the way the King James translates Paul’s word for love, agape. The Greeks had a handful of different words for “love,” of which “agape” is only one. Paul isn’t writing only about romantic love here—even though, as it happens, we hear this passage read at nearly every wedding. Paul is referring to God’s unconditional love for us and how we reflect that love in the way we live. Agape is a rare, unselfish kind of love— the ideal kind of love for couples, and vitally important for Christians to share.

Nowadays, the word “charity” sounds a little condescending. That’s why we sometimes overhear a person say, “I don’t want your charity!” But in 1611, in the British Isles, charity was the highest ideal of caring for others. And so, “charity,” is the English word the seventeenth century scholars selected for their translation of agape. Compare the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which we have in our pews. It translates the Greek word as "love." The modern words in your pew Bible, "Love is patient, love is kind," in the year 1611, sounded like this: "charity suffereth long, and is kind.” “Charity” emphasizes who the giver is, not who the benefactor is. Paul is suggesting that actions are more important than words. When we demonstrate Christ’s love, others will see God’s love in us.

Russian writer Leo Tolstoy tells a story that illustrates Paul’s definition of love. In the story, there are three hermits who live on an isolated island. They spend all their time praying for their own salvation and the salvation of the world. A Bishop sails by on a passing ship, and asks the captain of that ship for permission to go ashore and visit the hermits. When the Bishop meets these men, he is shocked to discover that they don’t even know the Lord’s Prayer! So he spends hours with them, teaching them how to pray--one word at a time, and one phrase at a time, until they have the Lord’s Prayer memorized. The Bishop feels pleased with himself because he’s taught them how to pray correctly. He blesses them and returns to the ship, and the captain puts back out to sea.

As the Bishop resumes the journey, however, the captain notices something on the sea between the ship and the island. As time passes, the object on the sea seems to be getting bigger – as if approaching their ship. Soon it becomes clear that the object is none other than the three hermits, walking together on the water. When the hermits arrive at the ship, they explain that they’ve forgotten the prayer the Bishop taught them. They have come back to learn it over again. The Bishop had come to think he knew all there was to know about prayer. But he doesn’t insist that they pray his way any more! He assures them that their own prayers have worked very well, indeed. Then he asks them to pray for him. That’s how the Bishop receives God’s love from these three men to whom he thought he had given charity!

Yesterday I officiated at the funeral of a dearly beloved man from our congregation, Ray Bottazzi. When the people who know us best are standing around, one day in the future, after our funeral, talking about us, what will they say about how we lived? They may speak of our impressive achievements. Maybe they’ll talk about our volunteer hours in the community, or about our happy, healthy children and grandchildren. They may mention our professional stature or our success in business. But if they never mention how much and how well we loved, all these accomplishments will have meant nothing. That’s Paul’s message about love.

Actions speak louder than words. We can say we love someone, but unless there is charity to back it up, our words are meaningless. It’s our deeds that give our words meaning. And faith is all-important, too. You may have asked yourself, while listening to the Apostle Paul’s ode to love, “I understand how love, can be more important than knowledge. But how can love be more important than faith?” I think Paul's answer would be that it is because faith is the instrument and love is the goal. This makes love "the greatest of these." But we must never forget that, while love may rank higher than faith, we may not be able to love without faith.

At the communion table, we experience the greatest expression of God’s love. When church members live and work in community, as members of the body of Christ, we meet God face to face. May Paul's words remain with us and God's love flow through us as we live out our faith with hope and charity.


Let us pray. O God, we have come to hear your voice of affirmation. We come to hear your voice calling us to be and do what you have called us to be and do. Let faith abide. Let hope abide. Let love abide—here in our congregation, here in our world, but most of all, here in us. Amen.



“Glow in the Dark”
February 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 9:28-36

John and I have two cats at home, and I’ve learned a few things from watching them.  Some people say that cats are unpredictable, but there are certain things that you can count on cats to do.  For example, if you turn your back on an empty box on the floor, chances are that, when you turn around again, a cat will be sitting in that box. If you go into a room looking for one of the cats, and that room has no boxes on the floor and no bed to hide under – chances are you’ll find the cat on a table, or curled up next to the computer monitor, or sleeping on the sofa.  Cats prefer high ground for the same reason army officers do: they can see what’s coming and be prepared to defend themselves. Those things matter to a cat, when there is more than one animal in the house.

Cats aren’t the only creatures drawn to high ground.  People are, as well. We want to climb mountains.  We’re drawn to the high places in spite of ourselves – even if the footpath is rough, and there’s nothing to do after we get to the top, except look around.

I sometimes think about that when I’m on an airplane, looking around at frequent travelers, sitting, hunched over their laptops, hiding behind newspapers, or sleeping.  (Just like Peter, James and John are “weighed down with sleep,” in Luke’s gospel story). Right outside the window seat, in every row, are sights that people in Bible times could never have imagined---the glint of sunlight off a river, little cars inching along ribbons of road, and patchwork quilts of farmland. A spectacular view of God’s creation is right there, so I wonder why many people don’t look out the window of an airplane.

Today’s gospel story has given the phrase, “mountaintop experience” to the English language. Jesus and His disciples walk to a mountaintop. Do Peter, James and John follow their leader up the mountain for the view? I’m guessing that they want to pray in a place close to heaven.  In the Bible, mountains are holy. God dwells near the top of a mountain. What Peter, James and John experience on the summit turns out to bring them closer to God than they could have imagined.

In one of the strangest moments of Jesus’ ministry, His appearance changes.  When Peter, James and John wake up, they see Jesus is glowing as brightly as a flash of lightning, right there on the mountaintop. Moses and Elijah are at His side, talking to Him, and they’re glowing, too. These disciples have been as close to Jesus, in recent months, as friends could ever be. But now their teacher seems to have been promoted to a higher position. His friends are Moses, the lawgiver and Elijah, the miracle worker, and they talk with Him as equals. God says, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him!”

Peter offers to build “booths” –so they all can dwell on the mountain with God for the rest of their lives.  But Jesus ignores Peter’s comment. He hasn’t climbed that mountain to put on a spiritual light show.  He’s there to pray. Jesus knows the road He’s been traveling on, will soon take a dangerous turn. After Peter and his companions get over their shock at seeing Jesus glow in the dark, they realize that He is none other than the Messiah.

A short while later, Jesus looks normal again.  There is nothing for these four friends to do, other than to walk back down the mountain. And the walk down a mountain is tougher than we expect it will be.  A journey down produces more pain in the joints, than a journey up. That’s because of the force of gravity. Your feet pound down onto the rocky trail until you’re a mass of aches and pains. And when it’s very hot, and you feel light-headed, you must be careful not to fall forward. John and I experienced this last spring when we climbed down from the Acropolis. The same thing happens when we return from a Sabbath rest. You know how it feels on the first day back at work, after a restful vacation. It’s a shock. We try to prepare ourselves as best we can for it.

Re-entry can be tough. We would rather stay on the mountaintop.  Yet, God doesn’t behave in such a way as to make that possible. God didn’t let Jesus, or Peter, James, or John, to stay at the summit. They were bound for Jerusalem, and Calvary.  God knows we’re people of the valley, and this is the place where we answer Jesus’ call to be disciples. Unless you work for the church, you’re not meant to be here all the time. Worship is a beautiful thing.  Ministry performed in and around the church is beautiful.  But it’s not the sum-total of Christian discipleship.  Our faith is nothing if we don’t take it out on the road. We focus our spiritual energy on Christmas and Easter. We love the candles that glow in the dark on Christmas Eve.  But what we do after we come down from our holy mountain is just as important—and much more difficult.

It’s not easy to live a Christian life, here in the valley--- it’s often dark.  The days are actually shorter in a valley than on a mountaintop.  The summit, by contrast – where there are no obstacles to interfere with the angle of the sun – is bathed in light.   The only problem is, we can’t dwell there.  We’re valley people. This is where the Lord has placed us – and where even Jesus Himself dwelt as a carpenter in Nazareth.

The last speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered before his assassination in 1968, is known as his “mountaintop” speech.  It took his listeners to the mountain summit.  The summit he was referring to was Mount Nebo, the place where Moses died after seeing the land he would never enter.  Here are some words from that speech:

“And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats..were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead… I've been to the mountaintop. I don't mind. Like anybody, I would like to live - a long life... But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've… seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But … we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I'm happy, tonight. I'm not worried about anything…Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

We can only glimpse the Promised Land from here in the valley, as part of a faithful congregation. The spiritual lives of the disciples were formed on that mountain. For them, the valley would never be the same—because there, on the summit, they discovered Jesus’ identity and joined His ministry. We should go and do likewise.


Let us pray. Lord Jesus, we have caught a glimpse of your glory as God’s only begotten Son. Now, in our life in the valley, help us to move from vision to discipleship. Help us to listen to you, now that we have been in your glowing presence on the mountaintop. Having opened our eyes, now open our ears. Help us to hear you, and in hearing you, help us to obey. AMEN


“The Ice Will Melt”
Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

The prophet Joel says, “Return to the Lord!” That’s why we’re here tonight. The word Lent means "to lengthen," as in: “the days are getting longer.” In February, we feel as frozen as the ground we walk on. Ash Wednesday is the solemn beginning to Lent. During this time, we see life returning to the earth, and we remember how God has blessed us. Lent has three traditional practices: praying, fasting, and almsgiving. In this day and age, Christians don’t have to pray, or help the poor, or give up bad habits. But we should do these things all through the year, in thankfulness to God.

We have six weeks and six Sundays until Easter. The sacrifices we make, between now and the end of March, will help us understand what Christ’s sacrifice on the cross meant to us. God’s greatest gift to us is the promise of eternal life in His only Son.

Lent is supposed to last forty days. But it actually lasts forty-six days. How can both of those statements be true? That’s because the six Sundays in the Lenten season are “Sabbath times” in between the days of sacrifice. Those must have been the days when the monks, who fasted during Lent in the Middle Ages, got a full square meal so they wouldn’t keel over. But that doesn’t mean that if you give up a habit like smoking or gossiping or eating chocolate for Lent, you can backslide on Sundays. It doesn’t work that way.

You have a choice. If you choose a spiritual discipline, it’s supposed to last all forty-six days of Lent. By the way, Jesus doesn’t speak about Lent in the gospels. Lent isn’t mentioned in the Bible at all! European Christians in the Dark Ages started the disciplines of Lent. Imagine yourself as a peasant in Europe in the year 350 A.D. Those people fasted because there was nothing left in the root cellar, by February 13, but five wrinkled turnips. They prayed because it was in the late winter that infectious disease was spread, and they desperately needed to keep their families safe. They gave money to the poor so God would smile on them and bring an end to the cold and damp. But Lent gave a sense of Godly meaning to the worst time of year, when the world seemed dead and wanted to be alive.

Lent is about letting go of sin and cleaning up our lives. God created us to be good. And yet, sin is pervasive. It’s part of the human condition. We may give up one bad habit, but other temptations are out there in wait for us. We shut God out of our lives. Taking on a Lenten discipline is a way of accepting God’s authority. We may need to fall through the ice, so to speak, before we start to reach for God’s outstretched hand. Think about the times in your life when you grew, emotionally and spiritually. Did your crises involve loss of your health, your job, or your sweetheart, or did they happen when you had gotten yourself in trouble? Did the stress force you to grow up? If that’s the case, maybe you can look back and see God’s hand in it.

I met a young man last night who had just joined another church in the Lehigh Presbytery. I was observing Session meeting at that church, for the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry. The man said he had turned his back on the Christian faith for more than ten years. But when his wife walked out one night, and he saw her on the street with another man the next day, he had decided he needed God after all. He had started going to church again that week.

An older woman was joining the church at that Session meeting. She had been baptized in that congregation as a child, and was confirmed ten years later. In college and in her early adult life, she had stayed away and let her membership lapse. At age fifty, she moved to Alaska and was diagnosed with cancer. Living all the way up there, she got ten or twelve get well cards a day, for several weeks, from the church of her childhood. Her mom was Deacon Moderator. When she returned to the Lehigh Valley for treatment, she stopped in at her home church again. She began going each week. Last night she spoke of her renewed faith in God.

He describes an infestation of locusts. It sounds like a comic book situation to us today, but it was a disaster for the farmers of Judea. Listen to part of that passage again, and you can picture the insects swarming. Joel offers hope that God will protect his people if they fast and weep and mourn.

To ancient Jews, rending one’s garments was a part of what they did to repent. Why should we rend our hearts? What did that mean for Joel? The heart, to those ancient people, was not the symbolic center of feeling, like it is for us. It was the thinking center for them. The Jews of 400 B.C. had no conception of the brain’s function. To rend one’s heart was to open one’s thoughts to God—something like “opening our minds” today.

Fasting, sacrificing, and praying are like “rending your heart.” What spiritual discipline will you try, so you can open your mind to God? Whichever one you choose, I encourage you to tell at least one person here at church about it. That person can check in with you every week, help you keep at it, and celebrate new life with you on Easter morning. The bad habit I’m going to work on is procrastination. My work days all have a “soft start-up.” I do easy jobs for a half hour before I make difficult phone calls or start my sermon. If I tackle the hardest tasks on my to-do list, first thing every morning, I will do my job better and serve God better.

Procrastination isn’t like stealing or murder, but it’s still a sin! We live in a time when sin surrounds us like black ice on a February evening. Evil is real. Sin makes us cold inside. If we say no to it, it will melt away as quietly as ice melts. Forgiveness is certain, but sin is all around, and we are human. When our hearts are cold, we grieve the heart of Jesus. When you pray, imagine you’re entering a place where the ice of your sins will melt.

Lean towards the cracks and crevices in one seemingly hopeless situation in your life. Our sin causes trouble for God. Sometimes others sin against us and we can’t forgive them. Sometimes we can’t forgive God. Let God melt the ice in your heart.

There are three types of Lenten disciplines: First, to give alms to the poor. (Think jars of applesauce for the Whitehall Food Pantry. Think dollar bills for the folks who ask you for spare change.) Second, to pray constantly. (Think about adding a regular prayer time to your life.) Third, to fast. (Think about giving up a practice that hurts you or your savings account, as a way of reaching out to God.) Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful.


Let us pray: O God of our salvation, we come before you on this beginning of the season of repentance. May we trust in your mercy, seek the reign of Christ in our lives and rely upon the Spirit's power. Through Jesus Christ, who is the path homeward to you. We know that our Redeemer lives. Amen.

 


“Whose God is the Best and the Brightest?”
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

Jesus has a sense of urgency. He’s just come out of the waters of the Jordan River, after being baptized by His cousin, John. He’s come into a wonderful inheritance! God has declared, about HIM: "This is my Son the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”

But this is only the beginning. Satan is about to throw forty days’ worth of trials and temptations at Jesus. How can He honor God’s call in His life? Imagine yourself in Jesus’ situation. He’s walking through the wilderness of Judea, and it’s not a beautiful wilderness with trees and rivers and cool rain. It’s a rocky desert where almost nothing grows. There He hears a voice, and it’s not the voice of God. Satan is saying tempting things to Him: "Since you’re the Son of God, act like God. If you're hungry, use your power to feed yourself." "Why not use power-plays? Be a political Messiah because that's what your people are looking for. Think of the good you can do! Think how wonderful it will be." "Or, if you want to reach a lot of people with your message, take a shortcut. Use your power to dazzle the people. Jump off the highest point of the Temple. When the angels catch you, you'll really draw a crowd." The voice of Satan entices Jesus to dazzle the crowds with a spectacular miracle, to win the people by power and politics. Jesus knows which voice to listen to. Jesus just says no.

Jesus wins that battle with temptation, but much of the time, we don’t. We don’t relate our faith to our lives as much as we should. Each Sunday morning, we say a prayer of confession, admitting that we have failed God and our neighbor. Then, as pastor, I make an astonishing announcement: "Friends, believe the good news." In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven! He is our salvation! God says: “You are my beloved Daughter. You are my beloved Son. In you, I am well pleased.” That’s what we hear in the Assurance of Forgiveness. But do we really hear this good news?

We feel ashamed of our failures. We think we have to earn every blessing. We learn to calculate our value, as people, by our past accomplishments. Do we live in the best school district? Did our team win the championship? Have we read through the whole Bible, including Leviticus? Did we do well on the GRE’s? Did our kids get accepted at the best colleges? If not, it’s because we haven’t worked hard enough, or haven’t been lucky.

We are God’s children. There is nothing we can do to be better qualified for God to love us. There is nothing we can do to earn salvation. The gift of salvation is freely given to all who believe in Christ.

One reason we have a hard time hearing the assurance of forgiveness is the sheer volume of words that bombard us on advertising billboards, on television and on the computer. We read and hear tens of thousands of words every day. Many of those words are junk messages and lies.

This morning, hear this good news: Nothing you have ever done can erase God’s blessing. You are God’s beloved child in whom He finds joy. How will we live out that blessing? In chapter four of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sorts out His life in the wilderness. He is the best and the brightest. God has said so. The world can be His! But He knows the Hebrew Bible, and remembers Moses’ commandment to the Israelites from Deuteronomy: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only Him.”

To live as a child of God offers us as many temptations as blessings. We waste God-given time, talents, and energy on grabbing recognition. We show off how righteous we are, and we talk about how unrighteous everyone else is.

Through God’s gift of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Lent is our opportunity to hear that good news, in a new way. This is the doctrine of justification, and it changed the life of Martin Luther in the Reformation. Paul’s words in Romans freed Luther from his feelings of unworthiness as a human being. He had grown up with a father who was a strict disciplinarian, bordering on abusive. As a monk, he had been hard on himself for his temptations. When Luther translated the book of Romans, from Hebrew to German, he began to understand Paul’s words--- he had already been saved through faith. He was overjoyed that his heavenly father loved him unconditionally, even if his earthly father didn’t. Luther wrote, “ I did not love a just and angry God….The passage of Paul, from Romans, became for me a gate to heaven.” Salvation by grace, through faith, became a battle cry of the Protestant Reformation.

Lent invites us to reflect on this question: will our lives change once we begin to feel God’s blessing? One does not live by bread alone. By reading Scripture each day, by taking good care of ourselves, by praying every day, we begin to believe the good news: In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.

Jesus discovers His calling and His joy as He turns toward the people around him. In the Gospel of Luke, those people are often poor people and outsiders. Jesus resists the false values, the lies, of the Judean society and of the Roman Empire. When temptation looms around Him, Jesus keeps up His courage by talking with God. He is never alone, and neither are we.

Our reading from Romans reminds us: there is no distinction between Jew and Greek. The same Lord is Lord of all. Paul urges that the word on our lips be a word of affirmation. God speaks to us through the scriptures, through preaching and in prayer.

I like this translation from our New Testament reading from Romans, written by pastor Eugene Peterson: “It’s the word of faith that welcomes God to go to work and set things right for us. Say the welcoming word to God. ‘Jesus is my master.’ That’s it. You’re not doing anything. You’re trusting God to do it for you. That’s salvation. You embrace God setting things right, and then you say it, right out loud: ‘God has set everything right between Him and me!’” Peterson’s translation makes it clear how God frees us from society’s standard of “the best.” In Paul’s day, you had to say that Caesar was Lord, if you were a citizen of the Roman Empire. People got arrested for refusing to proclaim Caesar as their Lord, including Paul himself. If you said that Jesus Christ was Lord, you were proclaiming that Caesar wasn’t. That was very dangerous.

The Apostle Paul wasn’t perfect. He wrote that women should keep silence in church. He told slaves they had to obey their masters. He lived under the cosmic power of sin, like we do. It comes from Adam and Eve. Christ’s sacrifice has already erased the shame and the pain of our mistakes.

Can we find joy, in this dreary season of the year? Lent isn’t an annual self-punishment for Christians. It’s a time for spiritual discovery. Let us live joyfully, for are saved! Thanks be to God.


Let us pray. O God, we pray that you will draw near to us, through the Cross, during Lent. Make us courageous to face our own crosses, we pray. Help us, God, to make righteous decisions as your Son, Jesus Christ, leads us in a pilgrimage for hope. AMEN

 


“Do Not Be Afraid”
February 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

We have all made promises and kept them….most of them, that is! You’ve been let down by people you trusted, too. Have you heard these promises before? "I promise I won't tell a soul." "I promise to arrive on time." "I promise to love, honor, and cherish." "I promise to put the check in the mail today." "I promise never to do that again."

Yes, we’ve all been burned. What good are promises if all you have is the word of another person? It takes strong faith to believe in a promise that isn’t kept right away. We Christians are people of promise. But we’d rather have a guarantee in writing from God!

Abraham and Sarah began a pilgrimage of hope when they left their home town, the moon-worshiping city of Ur in Mesopotamia. At the time of their first migration to the land of Canaan, all that Abraham had was a promise that God would make of him a great nation, and that Abraham himself would be a blessing to all nations. You can find that story in the twelfth chapter of Genesis. But, after a while, these folks started to wonder-- how can a couple become a “great nation” without descendants? Would you blame them for thinking their migration to Canaan, and their call to serve God, have been a wild goose chase? They are seventy-five and sixty-five years old, and have no children.

Abraham is called the "father of faith.” His faith is far from wishy-washy. He’s given up a huge farm in Mesopotamia and said goodbye to his parents forever. And yet--Abraham has common sense, and his common sense is causing him to have doubts. The text opens with God restating His promises: "Do not be afraid! Your reward shall be very great!" Abraham argues by reminding God what God already knows: "I have no offspring, I am childless."

Then God re-asserts His promise, and shows Abraham the stars, but offers him nothing but His Word! Now the test of faith begins for him. Now Abraham must decide whether he can count on God. And Abraham believes! No wonder he is called the "father of faith!" He decides that the same God who makes stars can also make a son for an old couple. Abraham doesn’t believe God because he feels new life in his loins, nor because Sarah has morning sickness. Those things haven’t happened…yet. Abraham simply decides that God’s Word makes the promise believable.

God has given us thousands of promises in the Bible. God has promised: "Come to me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And somehow, we do find rest. Jesus has promised, "I will send the Holy Spirit upon you." He has done that. He has said, "The Lord will give peace to his people." He does give us peace.

Abraham believed God’s Word--mostly. Delay can shake our faith, and that happened to Abraham and Sarah, too. We have had promises made and broken by other people, and that’s why we get cynical about God’s Word, too. God keeps promises, but He does sometimes delay. Abraham gets more desperate for an heir.

We hate to wait for anything. We don't like to be put on hold, on the phone. We'd rather not wait in a long line, and we don't even like to wait for photographs to download on the computer. We are fast-food, fast-service people. When we stand on the promises of God we are occasionally impatient—even frustrated. But a promise is a gift from God. The grace of the Almighty cannot be hurried.

God's move toward Abraham is free and unconditional. Abraham needs only to trust, and he does---mostly. An unsure faith questions "When?" and "How?" A faith in the promise of God believes and waits. We cry, "O Lord, how long?" How long until I am well again, how long until my children come home, how long until my marriage gets better, how long until you find me a job? And that's the test of our faith, just as it was for Abraham. Spontaneity annoys us. We run by clocks and schedules and calendars. We want to be in control. We want God to tell us when - forgetting that God does not limit Himself to human schedules. He has eternity. Of course we argue, putting human limitations on God. But we can’t expect God to follow our time frame. God works in God’s time.

Abraham had been seventy-five years old, and Sarah was sixty-five, when God had given them the promise. Now the sun seemed to be setting on their lives. How easy it would have been for Abraham to say to God, "You'd better hurry - Sarah's not getting any younger, and neither am I." This "father of faith" kept on trusting God’s promise. In this story, Abraham has prepared to sacrifice of a heifer, a goat, a ram, a dove, and a pigeon to offer to God. It’s painful to think of those animals being killed for a promise, but that’s the ritual ancient Mesopotamians performed, two thousand years before Christ, when they made agreements with God. The Lord comes to Abraham at the altar with a mysterious firepot and a blazing torch. The fire moves among the pieces of the animal sacrifice. That’s how God makes a covenant with Abraham, renewing His promise of an heir and land.

Covenants are promises in which one party agrees to do something for the other party. This bronze-age promise story raises two questions: Can Abraham trust? The answer to that question is a qualified "Yes!" Faith is a matter of trust. Abraham’s faith wavers a few years later, when he tries to have a child with Hagar and does, and his marriage to Sarah is sorely tested by the birth of Ishmael. The world is still dealing with the consequences of that decision, by Abraham, to take the matter of an heir into his own hands.

Here’s the second question: “Can God be trusted?” I would answer that question with a strong affirmation. Twenty-five years later, God’s promise is fulfilled and Abraham and Sarah’s son, Isaac, is born. God keeps His promises. God sealed His promise to us by sending His Son to die for our sins. When Christ says, "I will come again," we must believe it. Jesus has said, "I will go and prepare a place for you, that where I am, ye may be also."

Abraham didn’t know about life after death. If we live to an old age, death is natural, and we need not be afraid. Abraham thought an heir would be his only chance for life after death. In a sense, we are like Abraham. The season of Lent can be a time of doubts—we don’t doubt that the events of Lent are true, but we sometimes doubt that God is all powerful and gracious. Will we continue to trust Him, even at times when we feel drained of inspiration?

We can’t just "decide" to have faith. Abraham didn’t move from protest to confession and faith by talking himself into believing. He accepted the Word of God, put his fears aside, made mistakes, repented and moved ahead. He became the father of three great religions: Christianity, Judaism and Islam. We don’t have to be perfect to be faithful. We can practice our faith, in situations that seem hopeless, by believing what Abraham came to know: God can be trusted.


O God, deepen our faith. Help us to trust that you are with us each step of the way. We know our faith will shake and falter, but continue to strengthen us and to let us see every moment that you are ever faithful. Amen.

 


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