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December 2013 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Do You Have the Time?" — December 1
"A Message of Good News"
— December 8
"All Is Bright" — December 24
"Back to Normal" — December 29


“Do You Have the Time?”
December 1, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Romans 13:11-14

Like many of you, I have more yesterdays on my account than tomorrows. I wake up each morning, grateful to be waking up. The twelve hours that are spread out before me, are a gift. But I can’t help feeling that I have been given an assignment, too. What will God and I do with the time we have to spend together?

Christians don’t keep time in the same way the world keeps time. Today our calendars get switched to December. Tomorrow is the first day back to school for many of you, and my husband’s birthday. December 1st happens to be the hundredth anniversary of the Ford Motor Company’s first assembly line. For businesses, tomorrow is Cyber Monday. Some of our calendar dates matter a lot more than others.

The church invites us to live under another calendar. For us, today is the first day of Advent. Our sense of time is more complicated than that of the rest of the world. On the one hand, we have to count the shopping days until Christmas with everyone else. But even as we shop, bake, and decorate, we’re also getting ready for the second coming of Christ. Have we lost that, in the Christmas countdown? The Apostle Paul is urging church leaders not to forget their identities as the chosen ones of Christ.

Paul wrote his last great letter, the epistle to the Romans, in one of the darkest times for that church. Just a few years before, the Emperor Claudius had expelled all Christians from the city for a period of five years. A few believers had returned and rejoined the Roman church after the death of the Emperor. But they all knew it was only a matter of time before another emperor caused even worse trouble for them.

Paul's letter urges the church to wake up and get ready for Jesus' second coming, when He will judge the living and the dead. It’s time for these church leaders to be kind to others and give up their sinful ways—so they will be ready for judgment.

The second coming isn’t the kind of event which, when it happens, people will say, "Oh, that's nice!" Jesus' Advent is the most important moment human history will ever know. It will be the turning point in time. The Roman Christians don’t understand. Some are impatient. Others are just numb from all the hardships they have been through.

And today, Advent isn’t our main concern in December. As busy as we are, there’s a kind of automaton quality to the way we sleepwalk through this month. We put one foot in front of the other. We cross off chores from the “to-do” list: our annual Christmas letter, gift-wrapping, addressing and signing cards to get it over with. We do whatever it takes and breathe a sigh of relief when life gets back to normal. Paul was trying to tell the Roman Christians, “You’re sleepwalking! You think the life you’re living is the good life. It’s really no life at all!”

When Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, it had been forty years since Jesus had been crucified and raised from the dead. Christ had said, “I’m coming again for you.” Jesus had made a few spectacular appearances right after His resurrection, getting everybody excited. He had walked through a locked door to the upper room. He had eaten fish with the disciples on the beach, so they knew He wasn’t a ghost. He had appeared on the road to Emmaus, and later He had broken bread with two believers. But many years had passed, and Jesus hadn’t returned to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. A handful of Roman Christians had given up on ever seeing Him. Others asked themselves, “Was He really the Messiah?”

Paul assures the Romans: "Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers...Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light." Salvation, for Paul, is the grace of God personified in Jesus Christ. It’s not a thing to be pinned down like an anniversary or a holiday. The Romans who still believe, are getting impatient. They are writing to Paul and asking Him, "Are we there yet?" in the same way children ask their parents toward the end of a long car trip.

"We’re close," Paul assures them, "not far now." According to Paul, it is still dark outside, and the forces of evil still seem to have the upper hand. But we need to be ready for the new day. There is just enough light to know that morning is around the corner. Our theological alarm clock has gone off! It’s time to get up and get dressed.

We think of the story of Jesus as something that took place two thousand years ago. But we have more future with Jesus than past, and more tomorrows than yesterdays. He will come to strengthen us so we can go on.

Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers, Paul says. Jesus’ presence is the basis of our hope. He showed us the way to live. Each time we share the last supper, it’s a preview of His second coming--- the joyful end of history when the last will be first. We wait with empty hands today, to receive Jesus and celebrate His life in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. As Christians prepare to taste the heavenly kingdom, Paul calls us to set aside quarreling and excess spending and selfish grudges.

Most of the week, we go around trying to solve our own problems. We work, and we buy—especially in December. Decisions seem to center around buying the right stuff, because adertisements tell us that the right stuff will save us. So we get out our checkbooks and credit cards. Paul’s letter, on the other hand, speaks of God’s help, not bought or earned by us, but given in the person of Jesus Christ.

While the rest of the world is buying and partying and filling their calendars with events to attend, Christians come before God with empty hands to receive the gift of Jesus Christ. In the midst of all we have achieved and bought and decided and done, have we forgotten that we need Jesus to come again to save us? Paul urges the Roman Christians to clothe themselves in the garments of His salvation. In His kingdom, there will be peace and justice. Are we there yet? No, but for us, it’s not far now.


Lord, we are waiting. We’ve been waiting for a long, long time; waiting for love that breaks down hostile walls, and light that brightens darkened minds; waiting for peace that always seems at hand, yet never quite arrives; waiting for the Word made flesh to dwell among us. Lord, thank you for this time of preparation that makes the waiting all worthwhile. Amen.




“A Message of Good News”
December 8, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Isaiah 11:1-10

Five billion Christmas cards and letters will be mailed in the next three weeks, according to U.S. Post Office estimates. We spend a lot of money, time and effort to send messages during December and that’s no surprise. For many of us, it’s the only time in the year when we’re in touch with friends from out of town. Most of what we choose to tell those friends is good news. In fact, some of our friends brag a little too much in those Christmas letters. And some of US do, too.

Isaiah speaks a comforting message from God, in today’s Old Testament reading. Many Christians know Isaiah, chapter eleven, as the “Peaceable Kingdom” passage, because it inspired the paintings of Pennsylvania artist Edward Hicks.

On the Second Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Peace, the hopeful words of the prophet bring us comfort. Isaiah’s people, the Hebrews, were even hungrier for peace than we are. They were living in a frightening, terrible mess. Jerusalem had been burned to the ground by the conquering Assyrians. The Hebrews had been forced into slavery by their conquerors. They believed that God was punishing them for their sins. Isaiah was a tough prophet, who usually spoke God’s truth to his people without mincing words. In Isaiah 9. Verses 18 and 19, he had warned Israel’s corrupt leaders with these words: “For wickedness burned like a fire, and the people became like fuel for the fire!” But Isaiah seems to have had a good sense of timing. He knew, and God knew, that the Hebrews needed to hear a message of hope.

Our Old Testament reading begins like this: "There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse ...." What could be so special about a healthy branch growing from a tree stump? These words are symbolic. The tree stump represents Israel’s greatest dynasty of kings that began with David and Solomon. Jesse had been King David’s father and Solomon’s grandfather. During Isaiah’s lifetime in the eighth century BC, David’s “many times great” grandsons had all been terrible leaders. The stump image represents the end of those less- than-great kings, for the last of David’s line seemed to be dying out. Little did the Hebrews know that Jesus would be born eight hundred years later. They didn’t know—but Isaiah did.

Isaiah predicted that Israel would have a new king, blessed with wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and the fear of God. This king would be the branch growing out of the dead stump. He would be their Messiah--and peace and prosperity would be theirs forever. He would look beyond appearances and see the truth in people’s hearts.

The biggest responsibility of a king in the ancient world was to establish justice. A great king in those days had to make quick, but wise, decisions in judicial cases. Solomon’s wisdom was legendary, as you will remember. Why did the king have to do this kind of work? In Israel there was no Supreme Court. The king was the court of last resort, and he always had a huge caseload. David’s great-great grandsons had favored the rich and corrupt. Isaiah’s words were good news for the poor, because they had longed for a king who would advocate for them.

Today we hear, in these words of Isaiah, the vision of God’s promised “upside-down and inside-out” reality in the person of Jesus Christ. The greatest message of God’s love is Jesus Himself. Christ was born to change our hearts. He calls us to repent and to turn away from all the lesser gods, the graven images, that we worship instead of the Living God. Our king judges the living and the dead. He sees into our hearts. He is fair and just. He makes the last, the first. He gives us hope for a better world.

Isaiah’s prophecy describes a world where all creation lives in peace and harmony. In all of scripture, you cannot find a happier word picture than Isaiah’s description of the peaceable kingdom. Who of us can even imagine a world where wild beasts and children play together, snakes never bite, and the earth is full of the knowledge of the Lord?

And that's our problem! We are cynical. The most hard-hearted among us, dismiss the peaceable kingdom as an impossible dream. We don’t have the patience to wait eight hundred years for prosperity, full employment and comfortable lives for everyone. But Isaiah's vision is more than a social vision. It’s about a king who will change our hearts so that they will be "full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." The peaceable kingdom starts with us.

Many of us have a hard time catching hold of Isaiah's vision of justice and peace because we misunderstand what the peace of God actually is! Some years ago an art contest was held in a seacoast town in Maine. Local artists were invited to submit a painting that portrayed the idea of peace. Many of the paintings entered in the contest were peaceful landscapes and gentle waters lapping against the shore. But the picture which took first prize showed a rocky seacoast in the midst of a violent storm. Waves were crashing against the rocks sending the sprays of water high into the air. On the surface of it, the scene was anything but peaceful! However, a closer examination of the painting showed a sea gull, just a tiny bird, huddled in a cleft in the rock. All around the bird, the angry sea pounded on the seacoast, but the little gull shielded by the rock, was safe and secure in the midst of the storm.

That painting is much closer to Isaiah’s understanding of peace –it’s not an end to conflict. It is the Messiah’s holy protection that keeps people safe, even in times of trouble. Dangers still seek to overwhelm us, and some of our troubles won’t go away, but we can take comfort. The Messiah, the king of love and peace, is coming! God's Christmas message to you and to me is that the birth of Jesus Christ really can bring us a peaceful world. Even after most of us have lost hope, the Living Christ enters our lives and turns our despair into new life.

Isaiah always believed that one day God would triumph over evil. In Isaiah’s words, and in the gospel stories of Jesus, we can glimpse the future time when the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord. The Baby Jesus spoke no words. But even without words, His birth sent a message. Lying in a manger, He proclaimed God’s love for the least and the last. Jesus practiced peace toward others throughout His life.

We live in a world where talk is cheap. But words have the power to lift our spirits. Isaiah’s words inspire us to hope for peace. Jesus came to transform our world into the peaceable kingdom. In the way He lived, the death He died, and the New Life to which He was raised, Jesus himself is the best news the world has ever received. The shoot from the stump of Jesse has grown into the mighty tree of life. Our long-expected Jesus is the Word we can build our lives on.


Let us pray. In the coming of your Son, O God, we have received the spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and power, of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. Use us, we pray-- all that we say and do--- to make us instruments of your peace. Amen.




“All Is Bright”
December 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Isaiah 9:2-7
Luke 2:1-14, 15-20

I’m like a little girl when I see the lights of Christmas. They give me the feeling that something important is coming. Not all Christmas lights are equally thrilling for me. The holiday decorations at the mall appear right after Halloween, and they always depress me a little. The message I get, from the banner that stretches across MacArthur Road, is not so much a “Merry Christmas” greeting, as a reminder to get moving on my to-do list: “Hurry hurry, shop ‘til you drop!”

The blinking lights in front of people’s homes are the ones I like the best. I love the strings of lights that trace rectangles around the windows and illuminate porches and circled turrets. Electric Frosty the Snowman lives next door to glow-in-the-dark Joseph and Mary, and they live next door to jolly Saint Nick, with Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer pulling his sled.

We Christians love the lights of Christmas because we know how dark the world can get! And I’m not just talking about the winter solstice. The carefree Christmases of childhood are over for us. Let’s face it---we have more medical tests—and more tears-- in our future than in our past. But every year, we can drive around and see the reindeer and Frosty the Snowmen on our neighbors’ lawns. Bill White will write an article for the Morning Call about the light displays and we will look at his color photos and take his driving tours. Christmas light displays in the Lehigh Valley just get better and better.

Our worries don’t go away at Christmas—much as we would like tomorrow to be absolutely perfect. We need lights to give us hope and cheer. Some of us worry--will we spend our lives by ourselves? Others worry about family issues. Will our own children be happy? Will they grow up to be good people? And there’s always: “Will we be able to pay our credit card bill this month?” We watch our parents growing old. How are we going to care for them? We worry about our health as we get older. The economy is still in a slump, six years after the downturn. Nations are still at war. Innocent people are getting shot in schools and even in hospitals, and global terrorism is a grim reality. Our climate is changing for the worst. We’ll spend most of our lives hoping for a better day and a better world that we, and our children, may never actually see.

When the prophet Isaiah spoke to God’s people 2700 years ago, he chose the symbol of light. Isaiah knew how dark the world can become. In chapter eight he says that his people could see only darkness, the gloom of anguish.” Zebulun and Naphtali, the tribes to whom Isaiah speaks in our Old Testament reading, were in a hopeless situation. They were the two northernmost tribes of Israel. Whenever a super power invaded the country, those two tribes bore the brunt of the attack. They were constantly clobbered by the toughest armies of the Middle East. When the Assyrians attacked Israel, they took away the territories of Naphtali and Zebulun. The conquered tribes were overrun by the hostile forces, and cut off from the rest of Israel. That meant they were separated from their countries and their families. What could the prophet say to the people of these war-torn territories, to bring them hope?

Isaiah believed that the birth of a child would be the beginning of the end of their troubles. Here’s what he tells them, in so many words: “I know things are dismal. The enemy has killed people you loved and taken your land, but listen to this. A child will be born. This child will make things right. You have walked in darkness, but now you must take hope. God’s light is shining, and it shines for you! Your despair will become joy. Your oppressors will be driven away and their weapons destroyed. This One who comes to lead you will be a wonderful counselor, a mighty God, an everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace—bringing harmony back to the world. His Kingdom will last forever. Peace will come to you when this child is born.”

Most Christians today, believe that Isaiah was speaking of Jesus. The prophet’s vision came true one night in the city of Bethlehem, when the world wasn’t looking. Jesus was finally born, seven hundred years after Isaiah died. The outlook for God’s people was still dark, in those days of Caesar Augustus. The people of Jesus’ time knew Isaiah’s prophecy by heart. A light will overcome the darkness, he had predicted. People will rejoice. The oppressors will be overthrown. The kingdom of Christ will come to your children’s children, and that kingdom will be peaceful and just.

The suffering people of Jerusalem, back in Isaiah’s time, must have grumbled about his pie in the sky vision, and we can imagine them saying: “But that’s not what our world looks like now! We will surely never see such a world!” Isaiah responded, “It will look like that, one day.”

Jesus brought the love of God to all people he met. He told them what the kingdom of God would look like. And He showed them—and He showed us, too. And we still find hope in His words and in all He did.

Because of Christ, there is hope for the world! Life will be better than it is now. Peace will overcome war. Love will defeat hatred. Tears will become laughter. People like us, who try to follow the way of Christ, will be proven right.

Only light can end darkness. Only love can end hate. One day, the light will overcome the darkness. We don’t pay enough attention to dreams as big as Isaiah’s--- or promises as wide as God’s peace. We listen to empty promises like this: “Fifty percent off full-priced items, today only, with free shipping on all purchases over thirty-five dollars.” Even as we cross items off our to-do lists, we neglect the deepest longings of our hearts. Where is the Christmas spirit in all this? For some, the holiday season is actually the hardest time. But light is within each of us. Christ’s light—the hope of the world--will shine through us. Jesus doesn’t offer us an escape from life’s challenges, but instead brings us peace in the middle of them.

This Christmas eve, I invite you to dream of the peace God has promised for the past 2700 years. Every now and then we catch a glimpse: when a young father takes his newborn daughter into his arms; when a couple falls in love; when a family makes a pilgrimage to the bedside of a dying loved one and feels an unexplainable peace; when a single woman comes home to her solitary apartment, not as a place of emptiness but as a nest sheltered under the wing of God; when the lights that surround Christmas shine into the darkest places in our lives--and when followers of Christ courageously seek peace.

Today we have experienced only nine hours and 26 minutes of daylight. That leaves us with more than fourteen hours of darkness. But tonight we will see the light of Jesus Christ. Tonight, God’s voice says, “I love you. I will die for you.” And there is hope for the world. The world now has two billion Christians—and that’s about a third of the global population.

We will end this service by carrying the light of Christ. As we hold our candles, we will see that light on each other’s faces, and know that there is hope for the kingdom of God on earth.


Let us pray. God of light, shine upon us this Christmas Eve, and in the year ahead. Guide us out of darkness and into your marvelous light. May our lives reflect your love, that others may see your Christmas Spirit in us, each and every day of our lives. AMEN

 


“Back to Normal”
December 29, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 2:13-23

Christmas Day is over--but there is another whole week of Christmas! In the Christian church, the season of Christmastide lasts until Epiphany, which is a week from tomorrow. This is the First Sunday of Christmas. That name carries the promise of good things to come. Today is the fifth day of Christmas, the day of the FIVE GOLDEN RINGS!  That was always my favorite part of the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Are you ready for your life to go back to normal, after all the holiday hoopla? Maybe it is back to normal for you—with bills paid, toys put together, gifts cards redeemed, and the gifts that don’t fit, exchanged or returned already. Or maybe you’re still wrapping up the business end of Christmas. Maybe you’re still getting—and sending—Christmas mail. Most of us are. 

I suspect that Mary and Joseph were ready to resume their normal lives, too. But, sad to say, they would never see “normal” again.  The Holy Family didn’t get the luxury of sleeping in heavenly peace…at least, not for long. An angel in Joseph's dreams warned that King Herod’s henchmen were going door-to-door in Bethlehem, looking for baby boys to kill.  King Herod was a worse scoundrel than Joseph Stalin. He was a veteran of palace intrigue. In fact, he had executed his favorite wife, his brother-in-law, and three of his sons because he thought they were plotting against him. It seems ridiculous, that a little baby could threaten a grown-up king. And yet, rumors about the birth of baby Jesus brought out the worst of Herod’s paranoia. You’ll remember that the wise men who had visited the manger, had escaped by another way, avoiding meeting up with Herod afterward. He had failed to discover where Jesus was, and hadn’t been able to find the wise men, and this had made him even more frightened. So, the King had decided to take desperate measures and kill all the male babies of Jesus’ age.

Because of Herod, the Holy Family was forced to hide in Egypt to escape the king’s rage. Joseph was warned of the danger to their family by an angel of the Lord. The angel in Joseph’s dream shouted: “Wake up! Hurry! Run!” And so they did. In Egypt they were far from home, but God’s son was safe. Jesus spent the first years of his childhood in exile, as the only son of refugees. There would never be a “back to normal” in His life.

Herod’s massacre of the innocents is a painful scripture passage to hear on the Sunday after Christmas Day. For me, reading this part of the story is something like getting up from a comfy chair by the fireside and stepping into an ice storm. But it’s there in the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew. So is there good news in this epilogue to Jesus’ nativity story? Yes---The holy family survived and the Son of God grew to be a man—but there’s more! The good news in the story of King Herod’s rampage is this--- that wherever we find ourselves in the world, we are never off God's map.  God comes to the worst places, and in the scariest times, to share our suffering.

The prophet Isaiah knew this to be true.  In the Old Testament passage Donna read for us, Isaiah spoke these words of comfort: "It was no messenger or angel but God’s presence that saved them; in His love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old."  Isaiah was speaking, not only of the Holy Family, but also of his people, Israel.

So, here we sit, with the year 2014 just ahead, and with the old year almost behind us. In our hearts we hold the great Christmas story—both the joyful and the terrifying parts. On Christmas Eve we heard the joyful part—the story of Jesus’ birth. Today, we heard the scary part. Many preachers skip over King Herod’s role in the Christmas story because we want Christmas to be nice. And congregations do, too!

But we must remember that Christmas is God’s response to our sorrows. The part of this story that we’d prefer not to hear—the sad part—is the most important part. It’s the tragic part of the story that explains why Jesus was a holy child. When we hear his nativity story, we need to hear all of it. Since Jesus was born to care for us, very little is the same in this world.

We can’t get back to normal—there is a NEW normal in this world now. In the aftermath of the 2007 international economic meltdown, we live in uncertain times. Families are struggling. People are agitated and exhausted and sleepless. We worry more than ever.

We aren’t the first society to be depressed and anxious during the holidays. In 1940, Britain’s King George the Sixth gave a Christmas radio broadcast. Those were probably the darkest days of all for the British people. The war was going badly. Their soldiers had been evacuated from Dunkirk, and the Luftwaffe had begun the bombing raids that would later be known as the Battle of Britain. It seemed as though death could come raining down from the sky at any moment. And during the blitz, it did. It was at that moment of history that King George chose to repeat, in his radio address, a few phrases of poetry he had learned as a child. News reporters, struggling to find the source for these verses the next day, found that they had been written by a Christian missionary from India. They proved to be just what the British people needed, to marshal hope for the ordeal before them. Here are the words King George read, and I quote: “I said to the man who stood at the gate of the New Year, ‘Give me a light that I may tread into the darkness beyond.’ And he said to me, ‘Go forth and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than a light, and safer than a known way.’”

There’s hope for us in the way God protected the baby Jesus. God is here to care for us in the midst of tragedy. As God protected His Son from the threat of death, so will God protect us. This holy season promises us that life is more powerful than death, and that the light of God shines even in the darkness.


And now let us pray together.  All-loving God, for your grace that hath brought us safe thus far, and for your grace that will lead us on, we say, "Thank You." Stay with us, Lord. Help us to notice and help the people around us, to be sensitive to their needs. In Christ's Name, Amen.  

 

 


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