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December 2010 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"The Wondrous Gift" — December 5
"Mary’s Song"
— December 12
"A Great Light"
— December 24

“The Wondrous Gift”
December 5, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Isaiah 11:1-10
Matthew 3:1-12

We don’t have much confidence in our leaders any more. I hate to admit it, but Archie Bunker was right. Public officials have let us down too many times! When things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to, we wish for the leaders of the past. Often, I hear older folks say, "If our country could just have a president like Washington or Lincoln…”

We’re not the first generation to feel disappointed in our leaders. In the early sixties, my mother insisted that Americans had no heroes anymore. And yet, as I look back to that same year, 1962, I recall that three of the greatest leaders of World War II---Winston Churchill and Dwight D. Eisenhower and Charles De Gaulle---were alive. President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks and Marian Anderson were active in public life. Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra were playing for the New York Yankees. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand had top forty hits. The first American astronauts were orbiting in space. But my mom insisted we had no heroes! Her childhood hero had been Charles Lindbergh. This young pilot became the most famous man in the world in 1927 when he flew his plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” nonstop from New York to Paris. I think my mom was hoping somebody would repeat that adventure that had so thrilled her nine-year-old heart.

Our Old Testament reading is from the prophet Isaiah, who speaks with the voice of God, six centuries before Christ. He knew that his people, the Israelites, had suffered greatly because of bad leadership. They longed to be led by the great King David, who had ruled Judea around 1000 B.C. Isaiah is speaking to their desires here. He is predicting that, one day, a new shoot will rise up from the stump of Jesse. What is Isaiah saying about a tree stump, and what does it mean? Well, first of all, he’s recalling that David had been the youngest son of Jesse. Isaiah is using the symbol of a tree stump to tell the Israelites that their first ruling family has survived. Their new king will be even better than David. This leader will be the model for all humanity, and their city will be transformed into a place of peace. The new king will rule with justice and with mercy. He will lead the people in the ways of God, and His garments will be righteousness and faithfulness.

Our Gospel lesson is also about a wondrous new King. The prophet who speaks is John the Baptist. John is preaching to the Israelites just before Jesus begins His ministry. The people of John's time have been trying to figure out how to survive under Roman rule. They’ve flocked to the desert of Judea, to hear his confrontational words. The people see him as a popular rabble-rouser—even though he’s much more than that. In today’s reading, John calls his people to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. When John says, "Repent," he doesn’t mean what we think he means. John isn’t talking only about being sorry for sins. He wants the Jews to prepare their hearts to welcome the Messianic king.

Today, we’ve heard two prophets, six hundred years apart, predicting that a new leader is on his way. Isaiah says the shoot will spring up from the root of Jesse. John says that we must “bear fruit worthy of repentance” and then the king will come. Both prophets tell us we need to change to make way for a new kind of world.

How can we prepare to bear good fruit? How can we awaken to God’s presence? Do you have changes that you are preparing for? A new life for a family member, after finishing military service? Your first year of college? The beginning of a second or third career? Moving to a new state? Retirement? Or, do you want to celebrate Christmas in a fresh new way?

There is a wonderful story told, of a family whose life was interrupted by the Second World War. A young man went off to fight in the war. A few months after he left, his wife gave birth to their son who was not to see his father for nearly four years. During those years the mother taught the son well. She taught the boy to say his prayers each night. Then the child would rise from his bed and go over to a table where there was a photograph of his father. He would kiss his father's picture and then go to bed. The day finally came when the war was over and his father came home. That first night mother and father went together to tuck their son into bed. He said his prayers and then his mother said, "Now, kiss your father goodnight and get into bed." The little boy went over to the table and kissed the picture. He went to bed as his father waited with empty, open arms. The little boy had something to learn. Life was different now, and better -- but he wasn’t ready for it yet. The boy needed to make a big change, in his mind and in his heart, so he could enjoy the gift of the father he had never known.

What gifts do you long for? Christ is our most wondrous gift, and we need to change our hearts and minds to welcome Him. The word, “wondrous,” is perfect for Him. I like “wondrous,” because it’s an adjective we don’t use very much. I’ll bet you’ve never described a vacation or a family reunion, or even a chocolate dessert, as “wondrous.”

Even Christmas can become a cliché if we aren’t careful. Are we jaded because we’ve heard the story of Jesus’ birth so often? Are we getting as blasé about the Nativity as we are about our leaders? It’s easy to say “Ho hum, here we go again!” when “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” are televised before December 1, and snowflake decorations go up at the mall by Halloween.

When we speak of Christmas we use over-worked adjectives like “beautiful,” that describe a sweater or a car, for the birth of Jesus. My sixth grade teacher talked about A’s and 99’s as “beautiful grades.” A’s are good, but they’re hardly “beautiful.” She was blasé about grades. Jesus and good grades aren’t even in the same ballpark. I think the word, “wondrous,” is a better choice for the gift of Jesus than “beautiful.” According to the dictionary, the word, “wondrous” means “commanding both wonder and surprise.” The shepherds and wise men knew they’d seen a wonder in Baby Jesus. Their future had arrived.

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and became a wondrous leader. He fulfilled the prophecies of Isaiah and John. He was righteous and wise. Where His people watched Him to exercise power, they saw mercy. Where they watched to find him exercising authority, they saw unselfish kindness.

We are Christian leaders. Let’s do Christmas right. Television executives and store managers shouldn’t be in charge of our holiday. How can we welcome Jesus to rule in our hearts, and show people what “wondrous” really means? How can we be good Christian leaders? Twenty years ago, two Christian homemakers wanted their families to have better Christmases. They wrote a pledge, and they’ve followed it ever since. Here’s how it reads. “Believing in the true spirit of Christmas, we commit ourselves to:

remembering the people who really need our gifts;

expressing our love in more direct ways than gifts;

examining our holiday activities in light of our deepest values;

being peacemakers within the circle of our family and friends; and

rededicating ourselves to spiritual growth.”

The church on Sunday morning,” scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, “may be the last place left in our society that permits people to enter…new worlds of faith.” What is not yet, may come to be. God can use you as a leader of faith, to help bring the day when the new world of the Messiah is no longer a dream in our land.

Let us pray.

God of Glory, your word is a truthful word. We need your Son as our leader. We look forward to His coming. Help us to welcome Emmanuel, God with Us. AMEN

Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, ed. The Readers’ Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), 665.

Isaiah 11:5.
Matthew 3:8.

Carl L. Schenck, Christmas Eve Sermon, Pulpit Resource, December 24, 1989.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2009), 1440.

Walter Brueggemann, “The Mission of the Servant,” Presbyterian Outlook, Vol. 192, No. 24, November 29, 2010, 27.

Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli, The Leader’s Guide to the Unplug the Christmas Machine Workshop (New York: William Morrow, 1991), 9.

Walter Brueggemann, Finally Comes the Poet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 3.

“Mary’s Song”
December 12, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 1:47-55

When the Angel Gabriel told Mary she was going to have God’s baby, she must have been horrified at first. She was thirteen, maybe fourteen years old, engaged to a man she hardly knew. That’s the age when Jewish women of Jesus’ time got married. She had been preparing to leave her parents’ house to marry Joseph.

I’m sure Mary was terrified of being a mother, and even more afraid for her safety. In ancient Palestine, a woman who got pregnant before marriage might be stoned to death. Mary needed to find her cousin and best friend, Elizabeth, and talk to her as soon as possible. Her cousin was probably between sixty and seventy years old. Elizabeth was also pregnant for the first time. The older woman had reasons to be afraid, but they were different from Mary’s reasons. People were sure to make comments about her age---saying things like, "Isn't she too old to have a baby?”

When Mary burst through the door of her cousin’s house, Elizabeth felt her own unborn child begin to dance. She shouted to her younger cousin, right there in her living room, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. "

Blessed? Mary hadn’t spent much time thinking about the blessing of bearing the son of God. In her hurry to get to Elizabeth’s, she’d forgotten what the angel had said when he had first laid his holy eyes on her, "Greetings, for you have found favor with the Lord.”

Before the angel had tried to calm Mary down and had told her not to be afraid, he had called this poor, unmarried girl "blessed." Elizabeth saw how God had gifted Mary with joy—and she saw it right away. It wasn’t until Elizabeth reacted with such delight that Mary remembered that the angel had said she, Mary, would be blessed.

Mary stood there, trying to catch her breath, trying to get her mind around what was happening. In being called by God to bear His Son, had she been cheated out of a normal life? Was this a joyful moment or a crisis—or both? Can you find joy in a sudden crisis? Joy and happiness aren’t the same. We can always find joy when God is with us. Joy can come to us even under the toughest circumstances.

No matter how scared Mary was, or what others might say about her, this teenager was filled with such deep joy that she began to sing: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”"

Mary sang praise for all that God had done, and not just for herself. She praised God for sending mercy and justice to the world, through her unborn baby. Mary burst into song not just for herself, but for every person chosen by God to do His work.

Mary sang until she fell on the couch, exhausted. She sang until, at least for a moment, she forgot the tough road ahead for her. Both Mary and her son would pay a terrible price for obeying God. Maybe Mary hoped her song would be sung by ordinary people in the future, people like us who feel frightened by crises in their lives.

Mary’s song is wonderful news. But it isn’t the only news out there. The news is also that the rate of robbery reaches its peak in December. The Christmas holiday is the second biggest time of the year for car accidents. There are more suicides in December than any other month. Too many families that celebrated Christmas together last year won’t be together this year, because their circle has been broken by death, separation or divorce.

To sing Mary’s song in our time is to remember that God has blessed us, too. Mary’s song has been called the first Christmas carol. It’s the opposite of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” That song tells us we had better not pout, or shout, or cry. Mary’s song is for people who have good reasons to pout and shout and cry. Mary sings of God who brings us joy. We could give her song another name: “Jesus is Coming to Town.”

For those who are facing Christmas for the first time after a loved one has died, almost everything will remind them of their loss. Our sorrows— our personal shortcomings, family conflicts, money troubles, health concerns, job losses—all our worries are magnified at Christmas when we see happy, successful young people on television, celebrating with their smiling friends.

Older folks like me have come to terms with not finding perfect happiness at Christmas. I will never be listed in Who’s Who in America. I will never play violin at Carnegie Hall. In fact, I will never play the violin! I have hurt others. I have fallen short. Many people I have loved have died. Life is hard, and it seems even harder when we watch the beautiful young people in television commercials. But we can still find joy.

Happiness is what you feel when you think you have everything you want. It’s the absence of sorrow. That is why nobody is completely happy, even if they get what they want. But we can still feel joyful. Joy is what we feel when we discover God has given us what we need. We can even feel joy when our homes and our bodies and our hearts are broken. No matter how dark it seems, there is light. No matter how hurt we are, there is healing. Sadness may bring tears, but Christ brings hope. We can be like Mary. We can choose to accept pain as part of life, or we can choose to let it ruin our lives.

Do we really believe that God will keep His promise? What might our lives look like, if we really did? We are all really busy. Mary was probably busy when the angel came. She was about to be married. She had to plan her wedding—sew her gown and veil and organize the ceremony. She had hundreds of things to do each day in her parents’ home—milking goats and drawing water from the well, grinding grain and pressing olives. Her pregnancy must have been a huge interruption, to say the least. It brought her great shame and danger.

The angel said to Mary, in effect: “God has chosen you to mother the baby Jesus. Bear with me. Your joy is on the way.” Our joy is here! In the Presbyterian Church, we aren’t comfortable with expressing emotions in worship. We would prefer that things be done decently and in order!

This Advent, we’re done with the gloomy hymns and readings of the first two weeks of the season. The Advent candle of joy has been lighted today. Mary, a child-woman with her life and her future on the line, chose to be joyful. If she could rejoice, then there is no place or time so difficult for us that it can shut out the joy of the Lord. Isn’t Christmas about joy that is deeper than all of our troubles?

Let us pray.

With joyful hearts, O Lord, we give you thanks for your presence with us along our journey. The birth of Christ is a beacon light that guides our lives, no matter how dark our night. He gives us hope to go on when things seem darkest. Grant us the grace of Christmas, so that our lives may be a beacon light to our brothers and sisters who still live in darkness. Grant that they, too, may come to know the peace and joy of Christmas. Amen.

Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 365.

Deuteronomy 22:13-21.
Luke 1:43-44.
Luke 1:30.
Luke 1:46-47.

David Leininger, Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit, Series VI, Cycle C (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2008), 13.


“A Great Light”
December 24, 2010
A Christmas Eve Meditation
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” We came to church tonight, walking through the darkness, and we picked up candles to light later in the service. The candles on the Advent wreath, and on the Communion table, are shining. All the windows have electric Christmas lights. The sanctuary is filled with light, thanks to our Deacons and our Worship Committee. Even if the power went out in this building right now—HEAVEN FORBID!-- we would still see and feel the light in this room.

We see light around us, and we feel the joy of Christmas. But that’s not enough this year, for many of us. For some, the world has been dark. They’re struggling with forces beyond their control: illness, family conflict, and financial problems. Some of us have deep darkness in our souls. The world is not at peace. Swords are springing up where there should be plowshares. The “boots of the tramping warriors,” can be heard around the world. But the prophet Isaiah speaks of light overcoming darkness. He promises peace and righteousness for all people.

As we hear those verses from the Hebrew Bible, we need to remember that the prophets of the Old Testament weren’t predicting a day far in the future. They were trying to give their own people courage and faith to go on. Isaiah’s world, in 650 B.C.E., was not a happy one. David’s kingdom of Judah had been destroyed. The kings of David’s line, over the past four hundred years, had been just plain incompetent and a few of David’s descendants had been cruel, on top of that. Were the glory days of the Hebrews over? Now, in the dark ages of a fallen empire, Isaiah spoke, with hope, of a king of kings who would come.

When we look back at the twentieth century, and at the events of the past decade, we see darkness. The world in which Jesus came was filled with poverty and corruption and oppression. Even today, we ask this question: Where is the promised light? We need a word of hope. Some of us need it very badly.

We can rejoice in the word of God, spoken by Isaiah. Our “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” is born this night. His words are words of light and life. Even in the dark night of the soul, we know God’s unfailing love.

The music that we sing tonight reverberates with light and life. This is a holy night, and the stars ARE brightly shining. Heavenly music DOES float o’er all the weary world. All is calm and all is bright. We’ve seen the light and sung the carols of Christmas! We can go home, open our presents and sleep in heavenly peace, for Christ is born in Bethlehem.

On this night, Isaiah calls us to see God’s light shining in the darkness. Those of us who can look back on more than fifty years of life, realize that the joy of Christmas can be found in all circumstances. One of the most inspirational Christmas stories I’ve ever read, is from the autobiography of Gerald Coffee. He’s an American Navy pilot who was shot down over North Vietnam in the early sixties. Captain Coffee spent seven years in darkness, as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton.” In his book, Beyond Survival, he writes about his first Christmas as a prisoner. For some reason, maybe because it was Christmas, his captors had given him three chocolate bars. The chocolate was quite old and barely edible, but each bar had come wrapped in foil. The foil wrapping was bright red on one side and shiny silver on the other.

Taking one wrapper, Captain Coffee flattened it, and folded it into an origami swan. The second wrapper, he shaped into a flower. The third he began folding, not sure how it would turn out. It became a star—the star of Bethlehem, he thought to himself. Plucking three straws from the broom in his cell, he jammed them into a crack in the wall, and used the straws to decorate the wall over his bunk. He spent hours gazing at the light, reflected on his Christmas decorations. Captain Coffee thought, then, of the simplicity of the first Christmas—and of the faith that helped him endure the first year of his ordeal. I want to read Gerald Coffee’s own words to you. Here’s how he felt that night:

“There in the prison, there was nothing to distract me from the awesomeness of Christmas—no commercialism, no presents, and very little food. I was beginning to appreciate my own spirituality… and I continued to find strength within. I realized that, although I was hurting and lonely and scared, this might be the most significant Christmas of my life.”

Christ is the light of the world. Captain Coffee believed this with all his heart. His faith saved his life. The light of God shone in his prison cell that night. Our light can shine, too. In the gospel of Matthew, we are told to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

God has called us to carry forward the light that shone in that stable in Bethlehem. We are called to live our lives in such a way that Christ’s love is reflected in us.

As our worship service ends, we will sing, “Hallelujah to our king! Christ, the Savior, is born!” and then light our candles. I pray that each of us will carry the light of Jesus into the world. I pray that everyone will know we are Christians by our love.

Let us pray.

O God, we have seen the greatest of lights tonight. That light is radiating from your Son, Jesus Christ. We thank you for calling us to share that light with the world. May the people who walk in darkness, see His light in us. And may we celebrate His birth with the blessing of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, tonight and always. AMEN

Isaiah 9:2.
Isaiah 9:5
Isaiah 9:7.

Gerald Coffee, Beyond Survival: Building on Hard Times, quoted in Carlos Wilton, Lectionary Preaching Workbook for Cycle B, (Lima, OH: CSS, 2005),31.

Matthew 5:16.
Philippians 4:7.


Archived Sermons:
November 2010 Sermons
October 2010 Sermons
September 2010 Sermons
August 2010 Sermons
July 2010 Sermons
June 2010 Sermons
May 2010 Sermons
April 2010 Sermons
March 2010 Sermons
February 2010 Sermons
January 2010 Sermons
December 2009 Sermons
November 2009 Sermons
October 2009 Sermons
September 2009 Sermons
August 2009 Sermons
July 2009 Sermons
June 2009 Sermons
May 2009 Sermons

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