January 2016 Sermons:
In one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons, Charlie Brown and Lucy are sitting outside on a summer evening. The clear sky reveals countless stars and Charlie points to the heavens. He tells Lucy that he believes one of those stars is his. Among the millions of people on earth, and the millions of stars in the heavens, Charlie Brown says one of them is his star. "Does that make any sense, Lucy?" he asks. "Certainly," replies Lucy. "It means you’re cracking up, Charlie Brown." I am sure there were those who thought the wise men were "cracking up." Many today would hold such belief. But those men were resolute about following the star in the East. The wise men’s star is our star, too. Are we ready to enter the mystery and allow the star to lead us where it may?
Have you made any resolutions for 2016 yet? How do we make the most important decisions? I believe that the quality of our decision-making depends on who we put in charge. The chief priests in Judea were afraid of their Roman conquerors, so they tended to cooperate with Herod, the Roman puppet king. The wise men were different. Because they saw the selfish ambition of the Judean ruler, they listened to the voice of God instead of the king. God should always be our highest authority in the decisions we make.
Matthew, the gospel writer, doesn’t tell us much about who the wise men were. We aren’t even sure there were three of them. And they were probably not kings. Whoever they were, kings, astrologers, or explorers, they were wise enough to see God’s purpose in the signs around them, especially the Star in the East.
Herod had heard that astrologers had come to see the newborn King of the Jews. This king was power hungry. He felt threatened by anyone who might be called "king.” Unlike the wise men, he was unwilling to travel, in order to see for himself who this child was. Nor did he believe in God. Fear brought out the worst in Herod. His only agenda was to protect his position. So he released the sword of the Roman government against the innocent. He commanded that all Judean children under the age of two be killed.
There may not be a King Herod in your life, but no doubt there are authority figures who influence your decisions. Unfortunately, some folks can’t make their own decisions. They feel obligated to seek approval. Herod thought he could influence the wise men that way. He tried to use their faith and goodness against them, in order to kill Jesus. But they shared a common faith in God, and so they saw through the king’s plot.
We can thank persons in authority for their opinions, but we need not feel guilty about our decisions. Life is a journey which involves risks and adventure. The wise men were on that kind of life-changing journey. They had invested faith, time and money in seeking the Son of God. Instead of returning to Herod they left by another way.
Every trip has risks. Some people would rather go to the dentist and have a root canal than go on a trip. God wants us to explore the unknown, to take the unfamiliar road guided by His light. Christ takes us places that we would never have known, without His leading.
Wayne Dyer, the well-known psychologist, says that security is a myth. Security means no excitement, no risk, no challenge. It also means no personal growth. The kind of security we need is an internal security, trusting God that we can make any journey we face. This is the kind of security the wise men had. They decided, together, not to report Jesus’ birth to Herod. God was working in the wings.
Some folks hesitate in making their decisions because they don’t want to rock the boat or hurt anyone’s feelings. Successful decision makers are the ones who go against the grain, like the wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem. On their return journey they arrived at a fork in the road. They could return to Herod and tell him about the newborn king or they could go home by an alternative route. They chose to ignore Herod’s invitation to return to Judea, and went home in a different direction.
The beginning of a new year is an opportunity to travel in new directions. Our decisions depend on who we put in charge. When God is in charge we make our decisions by putting others before ourselves, taking calculated risks, and living our faith through worship and study of God’s word. Today I have introduced a small change to our worship service. We have a new affirmation of faith, just for this week. Some of you may prefer the Apostles’ Creed. We’ll go back to it next Sunday. I thought you’d appreciate a new faith statement for the first Sunday of the New Year.
I just read a book called Swimming in the Daylight. In fall 1984, Lisa Paul, a young American college student, lived in Moscow and worked as a nanny. Interested in taking Russian-language lessons, she connected with Inna Meiman, a Soviet Jewish dissident. The friendship between the two women deepened during the weekly tutoring sessions. Inna revealed that for years she had been denied an exit visa to receive medical treatment for her reoccurring malignant cancer. As Lisa learned more about Inna and met her family and friends, her eyes were opened to the harsh realities of life in the Soviet Union. Determined to help her friend, the American college student returned to the U.S. Her participation in a campus ministry at the University of Minnesota strengthened her resolve for Christian witness. She began contacting various media outlets and political leaders on Inna’s behalf. Lisa’s life-saving campaign for her friend culminated with a three-week hunger strike and press conference. Through these efforts, Lisa lived out her personal faith.
Christmas is over, and the Son of God is born. But, the story doesn’t end there. Jesus will grow up and continue His ministry. The decisions we make in the New Year will affect our life’s journey. Our decisions will be determined by who we put in charge of our lives.
Will we continue with the same old habits? Or, will we attempt some new journeys? The decisions we make are not necessarily right or wrong, but they have different consequences. We can accept them when we are confident that God is in charge of our lives. And we can trust the outcome when we have acted in faith, trusting that God will be with us no matter what.
The wise men undertook a long, dangerous journey to find the Christ Child and saved His life. The American college student, Lisa Paul, valued her friendship with her Russian friend beyond her own personal health and safety. By means of her own hunger strike, Lisa rescued her Russian friend from the repressive Soviet regime and prolonged her friend’s life in the U.S. God wants us to put the Herods of our lives in that kind of perspective, just as the wise men did. When we come to Christ, God directs us to work for the good of others, at times at the risk of our own safety. God wants us to be seekers like the wise men. He will be with us, wherever our life’s journeys may take us.
"Don't worry about it." How often have you heard those words? People express this sentiment in many ways. In Brooklyn, they say, “Fuhgeddaboutit!” In Australia they have a charming phrase: “No worries!” Our daughter says, “Chill, Mom!” Most of us worry too much. We ignore our friends when they tell us not to worry. We want to be prepared for anything and everything. And no wonder. We constantly hear of tragic deaths on the news---from terrorist attacks. bombings and school shootings. Collapse of the economy. Loss of jobs. A tornado on Front Street. You name it – it worries us. Emergency management is a great concept. But being in continual readiness for terrible news isn’t good for our bodies or our minds.
Some psychologists -- borrowing language from medical science -- make a distinction between acute anxiety and chronic anxiety. Acute anxiety, they say, is related to some immediate threat. If the brakes fail in your car, you feel acute anxiety. Yet, if you wake up each morning with a sense of dread, but you can’t explain why, you are probably a victim of chronic anxiety. The word "anxious" comes from a Latin word, angere, which literally means "to choke or strangle." There's another English word that traces its lineage to the same Latin root. The word is angina -- the sharp pain that precedes a heart attack. Angina arises when one of the coronary arteries becomes choked off by arterial plaque, blocking oxygen from reaching the heart muscle. Anxiety can kill you.
Another English word that grows out of this Latin root, angere, is "anger." Anxious people, as it so happens, are often angry people. They sense the breath of life being choked off from their soul, and so they lash out, flailing wildly in an effort to remove the threat, whatever they imagine it to be. Anxious. Angina. Anger. In these trying times, we’ve been subjected to alarmist headlines for so long, we've come to believe the world is a fundamentally scary place.
Although we may look back longingly on our pre-industrial past as a golden age of serenity, a look at the Old Testament prophecies shows that this wasn’t the case. Speaking God's word to the community of Israelites in Babylonian captivity, our text from Isaiah reminds us: "When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. ... For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.” Isaiah spoke these words in 539 BC, shortly before the Israeli exiles were released from captivity and began making their way back home.
It can be hard for us to understand the suffering they had endured, when they were transported to Babylon by the armies of Nebuchanezzar. We are a mobile society, and many of us are willing to move clear across the continent, if work or family responsibilities demand it. The Jews were very different. Before the exile, they had lived on the same land all their lives, and their ancestors before them. Their entire identity as a people was rooted in their theological understanding of Israel. They were the chosen people Moses had led out of Egypt. Their land had been the principal sign of the Lord's favor.
When the land of milk and honey had suddenly been snatched away from them, the exiles had been frightened, not only because of the loss of their homes. They had long feared losing their identity as the Lord's chosen people, away from the Promised Land. And they had no idea how to worship God outside their Jerusalem temple. It had been the spiritual center of their universe.
Isaiah’s prophecy from God assures that the Jews have been restored to divine favor. "I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." Who but the Lord could accomplish such a wonder, redeeming the exiles from their hopeless situation? How could such a miraculous release from their captivity happen, unless the Lord willed it? This prophetic passage pictures the journey of the exiles, to their former home—which came very soon.
The great passage speaks to us as well, to bolster our faith and courage. We are not the first generation of human beings to feel inundated by worry. The media tends to intensify our fears of disaster, but by nature, we are a worrying people. At times, worry keeps us alert so we may fend off threats—it’s true. Yet, more often than not, our worry is an overreaction, and, what’s more, it keeps us awake at night. Today's Old Testament passage reminds us that we need not fear because God created us in His image. When create something, you know it, inside and out. God, as our Creator, knows us better than we know ourselves. Moreover, as Isaiah reminds us, God formed us, God redeemed us, God calls us by name, and God says "you are mine."
Worry is a lack of trust in God. If we truly believe that God says, "You are mine," then why are we so anxious about our real and perceived problems? God’s words don’t mean that there won’t be waters to pass through, or fires to put out. What might we face today? Probably not a terrorist attack, but perhaps a heart attack; probably not a shark bite, but perhaps some biting gossip; probably not a burglary or fire, but perhaps an unwelcome interruption.
If we insist on worrying about catastrophes that might happen, we don't need to look far for possibilities. But our worries don’t honor the God who calls us by name and says, "You are precious in my sight." The Bible says that we should "Cast all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you." Yes, we have legitimate worries. The world is changing, and not for the better. We find good helpers in our church and our community, we install security systems, we move to safe neighborhoods—but the power of all these measures is limited. God has no limits. God is love incarnate, and He is our relief.
Chronic anxiety—that is, constant fear that we can’t pin down to a cause-- arises from within us. The spiritual solution to chronic anxiety can only come from within-- from our heart of hearts, as God touches us there with loving care. He has given us His Son Jesus Christ, who said, 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?”
Today we are ordaining and installing new church officers. I pray that the Holy Spirit will enable these faithful folks to dream dreams and see visions, as they share in God’s adventure of ministry. Worries will always be with us—especially in the minds of our church leaders. Their jobs are important. The costs of running a church are rising, our building is old, our congregation is aging, and we are in the midst of social changes that make our heads spin. A few of them are brand-new at their jobs. May God use these volunteers to lead us faithfully, and to bring our world a little closer to what God wants it to be.
Luke 4: 14-21
What was last Saturday like for you? Assuming you don’t work in a hospital and you’re not on a road crew, you got some time off. In fact, your life probably slowed to a standstill. Did you have to go to work? If you did, I’m sure last Saturday was miserable for you. If you lost power in your house, it was even worse. But we all survived. I’m thankful that we’re here, safe and sound.
Snow isn’t a big deal for me. I grew up in the southern Adirondacks, where the snow starts falling before Halloween and keeps falling after Easter. That’s why many people up north avoid buying white cars. They prefer bright colors. You’ll notice the same thing in the maritime provinces of Canada. Homes are painted red, yellow and bright green. White and gray houses aren’t popular. They look too much like the five-foot-tall snowdrifts that never go away.
January’s tough for pastors. For me, as an adult, the days of January go by in a blur because the Presbytery requires a lot of paperwork from local congregations. Last weekend was restful for me—even a gift from God. Thirty-one inches of snow made me stop rushing around. Isn’t that what we all do on Saturdays? We aren’t the first people to have endless to-do lists. The Son of God must have had the longest list that ever was. Think of the missions He had to accomplish in 32 years. He got it everything done. He made it a priority to stay connected to His heavenly Father. Jesus knew how to make the best of His retreats from the crowds. He didn’t have to be forced to stop rushing around, when He needed a break. He would have loved a good snow day.
We’re in the fourth chapter of Luke today. This gospel story takes place a year after Jesus has been baptized by His cousin John. Jesus had been led by the Spirit to the desert, where He had stayed for forty days while facing the devil’s temptations. Luke writes, “Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about Him spread through all the surrounding country.” Chapter four is exciting. Sit back and watch what Jesus does in His first month of ministry!
How was your first year in a challenging job? With all the problems that beg for His attention, what does the Son of God do first? He goes to the local synagogue to worship and pray. Synagogues in Jesus’ time didn’t have paid rabbis, or even regular worship leaders. Services were led by laymen. They consisted of prayers, offerings for the poor, and Bible readings with commentary by the readers.
Jesus is the lay reader. He gets a scripture passage to read from a scroll. He is expected to make a few comments on the words He’s been given to read, from the prophet Isaiah. As the congregation listens, imagine the worshipers asking each other, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” They expect to go home and tell the neighbors what a fine job Mary and Joseph’s boy has done, reading the Bible. This passage isn’t new to them. But they haven’t expected this kid from Nazareth to be such a dynamic preacher. And when He implies that He’s the Son of God, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy—that’s a real shocker for everybody.
Jesus the hometown boy begins to read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” What Jesus says next, is the most important thing: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus is declaring Himself to be the Messiah. You could say that He’s just given His mission statement.
This is so important. We are worshiping in church, along with Christians around the world today, because Jesus knew His mission. After that powerful statement, Jesus rolls up the scroll and returns to His seat. Perhaps a handful of people in the room gasp at Jesus’ startling sentence. One or two are probably even saying, “The nerve of this man!” The carpenter, the son of Joseph and Mary, says He’s going to bring God’s kingdom to earth. Their hometown boy is saying He’s not only a prophet, but much more!
Are you a parent? A college student? An empty nester? A retiree? Do you work several jobs to support your family? We all face the question, “Who am I as a child of God? What guides the decisions I make?” The people in the synagogue knew this young man as a carpenter and a devoted caretaker of His mother. Obviously, Jesus was strong in who He was. He wasn’t afraid to shock people with the truth. Jesus’ words give us something to hold on to: that our integrity shapes our identity. Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles. Jesus was clear about what He believed, and wasn’t afraid to state where He stood.
A strong relationship with God, gives us the strength to care for others, and for ourselves. Honesty can be scary—and for many of us, speaking our minds in public is scary. Jesus’s toughest gig was probably that first worship service in the Nazareth synagogue. Jesus is our model of courage and integrity. Put a big star on your “to do” list this week, in front of the heading, “Caring for your Spirit.” Some of you spend a great deal of time tending to the needs of others. Self-care matters, too. Begin by slowing down, the way you have to do on a snow day. Spend time with your God. It’s so important! You were at the center of Jesus’ mission to die on a cross, which He did so that nothing can ever separate you from God’s love.
In His first hometown sermon, Jesus’ friends and neighbors discover who He is and what He stands for. You are a child of God. That is your identity. God uses forces of nature—even record-breaking snowstorms-- to bless us in ways great and small. Our next door neighbor in high school shoveled our driveway for free. That was a blessing we didn’t expect. I had three days in a row to think about my own mission and ministry, and even to rewrite this sermon. How did God bless you on that snowy day? Did you stop to think about your mission as a Christian? In all our busyness, let us take every opportunity to pause—even when we’re not forced by a blizzard-- to pray and to practice our mission of love in Jesus Christ. Amen.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
3005 S. Front Street, Whitehall, PA 18052 | 610-264-9693 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Worship Service 10:00 a.m. | Sunday School 9:00-9:45 a.m.
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