November 2015 Sermons:
The pastor had agreed to preach at the funeral of a man he had never met. The funeral home had picked him out from a list of Presbyterian preachers. The man who had died, had no family. The deceased had requested that a Presbyterian pastor preside at his ceremony, when he had made his pre-arrangements. When the pastor arrived at the funeral home, he saw not one single person in the room where the pulpit had been set up—just the earthy remains of the man in the casket. It seemed that the man had no one to love him but God. Even the funeral home staff was in another room, and didn’t come in for the sermon.
Are Christians against passion? Absolutely not, according to the Apostle Paul. In the First Letter to the Corinthians, chapter thirteen, Paul writes that the three greatest human attributes are “faith, hope, and love.” Those are all emotions!
Human emotions have gotten a bad press, at certain times in the history of Western thought. Aristotle urged the intellectual leaders of ancient Greece to aim for the golden mean--- that state in life in which we are balanced, and in which reason rules. Aristotle saw human life as a long process of the use of reason and the suppression of emotion. In the late eighteenth century—the Age of Enlightenment—the rule of reason had a huge revival in Europe. I suppose Aristotle would have been pleased.
But the pendulum tends to swing back and forth. Some of the later Greek philosophers believed that the passions play a vital role in human thought. They saw human beings as constantly trying to manage the conflict between reason and emotion in their lives – and they saw this as a good thing. They believed this conflict between thought and feeling produced truthful living. For them, the goal of the well-lived life was to achieve a workable balance between the extremes of reason and emotion. The Romantic philosophers and poets of the early nineteenth century in Europe and America valued emotion over reason.
I believe that our emotions give our lives substance and meaning. I think it’s possible that emotion is a more complex way of thinking than rationality. One of the ways we perceive the world around us, is through our emotions – joy, sadness, heartache, grief, and love. Mental health professionals say that the best way to get over a significant loss, is to take the time to let yourself feel it and to work through your feelings about it. They call this emotional process, “grief work.” Some people don’t let themselves do grief work at all, but others get carried away with it. Great Britain’s Queen Victoria did grief work, when her husband Prince Albert died. The only trouble was, she never stopped. She wore only black clothes in public for the rest of her life—more than fifty years.
Nowadays, we have a hard time accepting our need for “grief work.” Why do we feel we have to skip this basic emotion and just get on with life? It’s not healthy to deny your grief—but the grammar of the English language takes a negative view of emotion. We tend to say that our emotions “get the best of us,” as if they are our enemies. One is struck by jealousy, paralyzed by fear, overwhelmed with grief. One falls in love, is madly in love, green with envy, fighting mad, or insane with jealousy. All of these emotional states are thought to be bad. We get embarrassed when we see them. We hold back our tears, especially at work. With emotions we are “bewitched, bothered, and bewildered,” as the song says. We become the victims of emotions. We say, “I’m sorry, I just got carried away.” Emotions involve suffering. The Sanskrit word for emotion is affliction. We say, when we have given in to our emotions, that we’ve “lost it.” That’s interesting, if you think about it.
To be thought of as mature, in our society, one cannot afford to lose it; one cannot give in to emotions. That’s what a rational person like Aristotle might have said. But then, along came Jesus. And He noticed something surprising, one day in the Jerusalem temple. An old lady passed by the temple treasury as people were giving their offerings. It isn’t just that she gave, but that she gave everything she had. She put both of the coins she possessed into that copper container! And everyone in that room in the temple knew it. They could hear two coins clink as she dropped them in. The two coins were leptons—the smallest of coins, worth less than a sixteenth of a modern penny.
Others gave more money, but this poor widow gave a greater proportion of what she had— a hundred percent of her savings. This small gift cost her so much. There is a real recklessness to her offering. She could have kept one coin. That would have made sense. Holding back half her savings would have been the rational thing to do. But it seems she was carried away by her emotions.
This story seems unrealistic to us today. It makes no sense. Why does this widow give everything she had to live on? Mark’s gospel doesn’t tell us. Jesus simply notices how extravagant her gift is, and He mentions it. He compares her to the scribes and the Pharisees, who have a lot, but actually give little of themselves, unless it can help them to look good in the eyes of others. The one in the temple who has the least to give, gives the most. What is her reason for giving? Try not to think of her offering in terms of reason, because it’s beyond reason. She is tithing a hundred percent! Perhaps she’s carried away in her religious devotion; I’ve known people like that. If you ask them how they decided to follow Christ, they will tell you that it wasn’t a matter of making a decision. It was a feeling. They were carried away, they say. Perhaps being a Christian, for many of us, is not a matter of deliberation but a matter of emotion.
I’m afraid the mainline Protestant denominations have over-rationalized the faith. After all, Christianity isn’t just a matter of principles and ideas. A church has several things in common with a business, but it’s so much more. We should keep reminding themselves that Christianity is something that you feel in your heart before you get it into your head.
There’s an old story about a wise woman who was traveling alone in the mountains. One day, as she was crossing a stream, she she looked down and saw a precious stone glittering back at her, from beneath the clear, running water. She bent down and picked it up. She dried it off and placed it in her bag.
The next day, she met another traveler. It was a man, who had run out of food the day before. He was very hungry. The wise woman offered to share her food with him. When she opened her bag to get out the food, the man noticed the precious stone. Impetuously, he asked the woman to give it to him. Without hesitation, she reached into her bag and handed it to him.
The hungry traveler finished his meal and left, rejoicing in his good fortune. He knew the value of the stone. It was worth enough to support him in comfort for the rest of his life. But a few days later, the man searched the old woman out. He told her, he had to return the stone.
“I’ve been thinking!” he said. “I know how valuable this stone is, but I’m giving it back to you, in the hope that you will give me something even more precious. Please give me some of whatever you have inside you that enabled you to give me this stone.”
The little girl was Christmas shopping with her grandfather. He carried her high on his shoulders from store to store, as they walked through the mall. She was thrilled to get a bird’s eye view of the decorations. A family friend stopped to talk with them. “You are certainly a big girl now!” the friend said to the girl, looking from the top of her head to the grandfather’s feet. She replied, “Not all of this is me!” and pointed down at her grandfather’s legs. Sometimes children are our greatest teachers.
Every Thanksgiving is an opportunity to think about the blessings we enjoy, and to realize that, as the little girl told the friend, “Not all of this is me!”
The writer of Deuteronomy looked back at the traditions and the path that Israel had traveled, and applied the lessons of history to his own day. What he saw was that Israel owed its existence, not to its righteousness, but solely to the grace of God.
In our Old Testament text for today, Moses preaches to his people. He’s urging them to remain loyal to God, when they reach the Promised Land. He knows he won’t be crossing over the Jordan River with them. He wants them to remember God’s generosity toward them in the wilderness. Their forty-year journey from Egypt has been extremely difficult, but God has fed them with manna, created fresh water out of solid rock, kept their clothes from wearing out, and even covered them with a cloud to protect them from the sun as they traveled. Not once did they even get blisters on their feet!
In the Promised Land, Moses promises, the people will lack nothing. The land is fertile, and it has plenty of water. It’s filled with fruit trees and grapes for wine. The hills in their new land are rich in minerals for producing farm implements and armor. In this land, the children of Israel will have every reason to praise God. This is not to say, though, that some people still won’t grumble. There will always be something to complain about and to expect God to fix. Moses knows that. He’s been their leader for many years.
In verse 11 of our Old Testament passage, God, speaking through Moses, expresses concern that His people might forget Him. And we know that, even in modern times, wealth and comfort sometimes lead us away from a relationship of dependence on God. We begin to believe we are “self-made.” We start to think the world revolves around us. We think we are too busy for prayer or Bible study. That’s how praise begins to drop off. To offer thanks to God is to admit that our lives are better because of Him.
In our materialistic world, we always want more, and having a surplus can get us into trouble. Dot Jackson, a newspaper columnist, wrote one Thanksgiving about her own childhood, “Enough was a roof that didn’t leak. Plenty of chairs on the porch and at the table….Enough was food and safety from the elements…enough was a little help for a friend in need and debt to no one. There is something perverse about more than enough. It’s always somewhere out there, just out of reach. The more we acquire, the more elusive enough becomes.”
Moses was aware of the problems surplus could cause, as he addressed the people. “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end, to do you good.”
God is our God, whether we praise him or not. The Lord is with us in the worst times. The pilgrims at Plymouth, in 1620, endured hunger, freezing cold, and deprivation. More members of their original band had died, than survived the cold New England wilderness. Yet they were grateful to God for being alive.
The wilderness that the Israelites crossed, more than a thousand years before the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts, was filled with dangers. God didn’t abandon them and wait for them to arrive at the borders of the Promised Land. Rather, God walked with them and provided for them and protected them. He did it for the folks at Plymouth Rock, so long ago. God brought the Israelites and the Pilgrims good times, too, providing all they needed to enjoy life and be successful, productive and happy.
Gratitude is the key to happiness. For this insight, I am grateful to Dennis Prager, author of a book called, Happiness is a Serious Problem: a Human Nature Repair Manual. “There is a ‘secret to happiness,’" Prager writes, "and it is gratitude. All happy people are grateful, and ungrateful people cannot be happy. We tend to think that it is being unhappy that leads people to complain, but doesn’t it make more sense to say that it is complaining that leads to people becoming unhappy? Become grateful and you will become a happier person."
On Thanksgiving Day, many of you will be with your family and friends to celebrate. Or, perhaps the holidays are a bittersweet time for you, as you mourn the passing of loved ones. Either way, know that God welcomes you amidst the joys of life—and the times of darkness as well. Yet, whether you are on the mountaintop or in the valley—give thanks for God’s bounty in your life: the food on your table, the roof over your head, the beauty of nature, the laughter of children, our material possessions, the trials that build character, the gift of our church, and the blessing of having awakened this morning to a new day.
Most of all, give thanks to God for the precious gift of Jesus Christ. He is our Lord and Savior who has won eternal life for every believer. What a wonderful privilege to walk with our Savior, knowing that He will never forsake us in this life or the life to come.
"It is good to give thanks to the Lord," begins the Ninety-second Psalm. Why? Because God needs our gratitude? No: because we need gratitude to be happy and healthy—not to mention faithful. Remember past Thanksgivings, when you had fewer blessings than you have today. The less we take for granted, the more joy life will bring us. Remember what that little girl said to her family friend in the mall. Only a small part of the richness of our lives is just you, or “just me.” Thanks be to God.
Today we are entering the Advent season of waiting-- both for the birth of Jesus and for the second coming of Christ. This can be a time of trouble, as Jesus warns us, in the gospel reading: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world.” Doesn’t that last verse ring a bell?
After the terrorist attacks in Paris, we all feel anxious as we await another horrifying incident. Law enforcement and government agencies are doing as much as possible to prevent another assault. But fear and confusion have taken hold of us. Some cynical Americans are even asking, “Why bother to celebrate the holidays?”
Advent waiting is grounded in love, not fear. As we eagerly anticipate our Lord’s return we must act in hopeful ways that show our Christian faith. Look for the signs to celebrate! They are definitely out there. I felt joyful when I drove by the Catasauqua end of the Hokey Bridge yesterday. I hadn’t driven in that neighborhood for the past three years. At that end the new bridge looks shiny and clean and solid, with no orange cones or construction workers anywhere—even though the “closed” sign is still up. Some folks wondered if they would live to cross that bridge again. And, in fact, some didn’t! After many delays, the bridge is ALMOST ready for us to cross. We’ve endured three years of noise and inconvenience, and soon we’ll celebrate the removal of those signs we hated. But let’s face it, a bridge is a small thing, compared to the birth of Christ—our bridge to God. The message of Advent has one recurring theme: Things are going to change!
Jeremiah lived in a dangerous time, just as we do. His nation, Judah had been destroyed by the mighty Babylonian Empire. He was in Nebuchadnezzar’s prison, a thousand miles from home. Prophets hear God speak, and then share with the rest of us what they have heard. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God spoke a word of hope to the people of Judah, who had lost almost everything – their families had been separated, their homes taken, and their temple plundered. Jeremiah's words warmed the hearts of his listeners and gave them hope that they would return home. King David's lineage would be restored, and the land repaired. The future, the prophet said, was in God's hands. God had promised to "raise up a righteous Branch" to govern fairly. From a budding branch, Jeremiah could foresee hope and peace.
From the very beginning of scripture, the tree has been a symbol of life. The tree's "branch" became a biblical symbol for newness growing out of hopelessness. Our earthly lives are branches that continue to grow and bear fruit. And as we bear fruit, the branches of God’s kingdom spread throughout the world.
In a Peanuts comic strip, Lucy looks up to see one solitary leaf clinging to a tree branch. "Stay up there, you fool!" she orders. A gentle breeze lifts the lone leaf from its branch and Lucy watches as it spirals downward toward the ground. "Oh, good grief!" she exclaims. "You wouldn't listen, would you? Now it's the rake and the bonfire. You just can't tell those leaves anything!"
Advent is the time of year when many trees have lost their leaves. Metaphorically speaking, we also "lose our leaves" in the autumn of our lives. We almost give up hope. Jeremiah must have felt at times that his people were like the last leaves on the tree, drying up and falling to the ground. And, like Lucy, God’s prophets couldn’t tell them anything. The hope of Judah seemed to be crashing down like a mighty tree. From the Tree of Life, each leaf must, in its own time, fall, both the great and the insignificant. God then lovingly gathers each leaf and calls it by name.
With God, we know to look past the falling leaves and stark branches of winter. Within each tree, there is dormant new life. Beyond winter, spring awaits. Life within that old stump is ready to sprout anew. In death, there is resurrection. People will be hopeful again. Winter has not officially arrived, and already Jeremiah is looking toward spring, when leaves begin to sprout. He speaks of a day when God will again plant and build. God will cause a new shoot, a new king, to spring from the cut-off stump of the lineage of Jesse, David's father.
Many of us are familiar with the Advent Calendar, used in counting the days until the Messiah arrives. The Jesse Tree is another visual way to count the days until Christmas. The Jesse Tree is the family tree of our Messiah. It illustrates people and events that God uses over time to bring Jesus into the world. The children of Israel always gathered to retell the Jesse Tree stories of how God had brought them from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. Generation gaps shrank as the Hebrew people shared their stories. They would begin with Adam and Eve, and then relate the story of Noah. Abraham and Sarah journey to a distant new land to make a home for God's people. Isaac has a close call, but God always keeps promises and comes through for us. A burning bush calls Moses to deliver the slaves from Egypt. The Israelites walk through the Red Sea. God lays down the law at Sinai. Joshua takes over where Moses leaves off. King David proves himself a good shepherd to God's people. God calls prophets to remind the people of who they are and whose they are, but the people have become deaf to God’s promises as they are scattered to the four winds. And then, Jeremiah reminds His people that they are still, and will always be, God's people. He relates God's message: "Someday I will appoint an honest king from the family of David, a king who will be wise and rule with justice. As long as He is king, Israel will have peace, and Judah will be safe."
Many people are tracing their roots through ancestry.com and other online genealogy programs. Knowing our family tree is important to us. Our biblical family tree stretches back through centuries. Time and again, the Israelite family tree was chopped back to a stump. But God kept restoring His people to life.
The best that can be said about despair is that it can lead to hope. In order to cross the bridge to God, we have to wait until the orange cones and barricades are taken away. In order to see the stars in the highest heavens, we have to sit for a while in the darkness here on earth. Through all our waiting, we long for the final Advent of peace. We wait for something beyond what we can do on our own.
This Advent season, we prepare our hearts and minds for Christ's second coming. We eagerly wait for the kingdom of God. Christ has come. Christ will come again.
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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