December 2015 Sermons:
Who would you consider your enemy? A co-worker who criticizes you behind your back? A neighbor who lets his dog run wild on your lawn? A driver who honks the horn behind you, when you don’t step on the ignition immediately after the light turns green? These are small things, and they may not annoy you. Maybe you have no enemies. That’s good; it means you are a peaceful person. You are in the minority.
In ancient Palestine, enemies were everywhere. The Jews were an occupied people. They had been enslaved and forced to leave Egypt. Their little country was constantly being conquered and pillaged by warring empires. Now the Romans were in power. The Jews would have been afraid to say or do anything that might upset the Emperor’s men. It was a frightening time and place to be alive.
Our gospel reading is a song of victory, sung by a powerless old Jewish priest. You may have noticed that the first scenes in Luke are like a Broadway play. Ordinary people suddenly break into happy songs. Zechariah has just gotten his voice back after having been mute for many months, and he sings. Earlier, Mary had sung a joyful solo about having been chosen to mother the Messiah. The angels sing their chorus of “Glory to God in the highest” in chapter two. And there’s even another song of praise from an old priest named Simeon, when the baby Jesus is brought to the temple for the first time.
What’s the story behind Zechariah’s song? The angel Gabriel had told him that his wife would have a baby, who would grow up to be John the Baptist. He and his wife were childless, so it’s easy to understand how stunned the old man had been when he heard the news. Because he had not believed the angel’s words, God had punished him by taking his voice away temporarily. Zechariah found himself unable to speak throughout wife’s pregnancy. A serious problem for a preacher! So the temple congregation, not having heard his voice for nine months, would have been amazed by the song of joy Zechariah sang, as he raised his newborn son up to the congregation, “Lion King” style! God was doing a new thing. And God was forgiving the old priest for his lack of faith, too.
Zechariah sings, “This child, my newborn son, will prepare the way for God, as a prophet. He will fulfill the promise that God spoke thousands of years ago and save us from our enemies and those who hate us.” Zechariah is overcome with joy—not only does he have his voice back, but God is fulfilling his promise at last. Those words would have thrilled the faithful worshipers who attended the circumcision and naming of John. God had not forgotten them. What wonderful news that this baby boy, Jesus’ older cousin, would pave the way for the Messiah. And the Messiah would come later, to bring peace to their land.
We live in a different time, but it’s similar in one way-- we fear forces we can’t predict or control, just as Zechariah did. We have been frightened by terrorism and mass shootings this week. Wars are raging across the world, innocent people are being blown up in office buildings, and children are homeless. How can a little baby help prepare the way of the Lord? Does the ancient prophet’s song offer hope for peace in our world today?
The name, “Zechariah,” means “God Remembered.” Perhaps, like that temple priest, we need to silence our anxiety and trust God to heal us. Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit. How can we open ourselves to the Spirit? Perhaps we need to return to the famous tenth verse of Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” We put too much faith in bank accounts and electronic gadgets. We think we don’t need God when we seem to have so much control over everything. But that’s an illusion. Disaster can strike at any time, just as it could for the Judeans of Jesus’ time.
On this second Sunday of Advent, Zechariah foresees the future of his son--- a child of promise. He will grow up to be John the Baptist, who will live in the wilderness and call people to repent and turn again to God. Those who went to the wilderness, to meet John, were challenged by the Holy Spirit to turn in a new direction.
Repentance is a tradition we observe every week. We have a time in Sunday worship that we set aside for repentance, three out of four Sundays each month—the Prayer of Confession and the Assurance of Pardon. On communion Sundays, we say brief silent prayers of confession during the sacrament.
Forgiveness begins with you and me. Do you have a person or group with whom you need to make peace? Think about what Jesus might have done if He were you. When we reconcile with a former enemy, we open our hearts to the coming of Christ. We begin to trust that despite the darkness all around us, God’s light will come from on high, like it did for Zechariah. God is gently healing the world, in ways we can’t always see. We can be part of the process if we refuse to allow anger to control our lives. If another driver makes a nasty gesture at you, let it go. If a co-worker bad-mouths you, remember all the times you have gossiped at work, and just let it all go. Give the neighbor’s unruly dog a treat. When resentment lingers, then the way to God is closed to us. We need to make room in our hearts to love others as we love ourselves.
As you approach Christmas, focus on the hope that was born in that stable in Bethlehem. Even in a toxic society like ours, we can serve God with joy. It’s time to let go of the petty resentments and the old baggage we carry in our hearts.
As one American leader said more than sixty years ago, "Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin." The speaker was Dwight D. Eisenhower, five-star general in the U.S. Army and 34th president of the United States. Peace and justice are two sides of the same coin. Through an act of divine self-giving, God enters our lives, so that our hearts will no longer be restless, but instead will rest in Him. Even in tough times, God gives us gifts of non-material wealth: Steadfast love, faithfulness, righteousness, and peace. These treasures are given to those who turn to God in their hearts.
We will share the Lord’s Supper this morning. At the Communion table we receive the hope of salvation through Christ. By the grace of God, we can leave this place to follow Jesus, empowered with the words He gave to the disciples, “Peace be with you.” His words were wrapped in deeds. He died with words of forgiveness on His lips: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus is God’s Word, come to show us God in the life He lived. He is the Word we can trust.
Christmas literally brings music to our ears: Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” and the great choruses from Handel’s “Messiah.” It’s the best time of the year to hear your favorite melodies, whatever your taste in music. However, this morning we are asked to listen to a sound that nobody enjoys hearing. It is the voice of one prophet, crying in the wilderness: John the Baptist.
This gospel reading appears in the lectionary at the worst time of Advent stress. Shopping lists get larger, and bank accounts get smaller, as we get closer to Christmas. John’s message doesn’t bring peace on earth—far from it! The first words he says to the crowd are, “You brood of vipers!” I wouldn't last long as a pastor if I started my sermons like that.
Are you willing to invite John to be our guest preacher for this morning? Maybe, maybe not, but here he comes. John lives with one foot in the Old Testament and one foot in the New Testament. His caustic sermon is supposed to prepare us for the Lord’s coming. And believe it or not, there is good news here if we listen for it.
The word of the Lord burns with passion in John’s heart. Upon hearing that word, he feels compelled to share, and he does. It’s not a pleasant word. And yet, we need to hear it in this season of Advent. If you think about it, John is the one character in the Christmas story untouched by commercialism. You’ll never see a Hallmark ornament of John the Baptist, a weirdo wearing camel hide, on any Christmas tree.
We already know that tact isn’t John’s strong suit. He tells the crowds the honest truth that they are not right with God. They haven’t prepared for the full advent of the Lord’s coming. Repentance means a lot more than to admit you’re sorry; it means to change direction in life. Even today, John jolts us with his warning. We deceive ourselves if we think we’re good all the time. The world is coming to an end. If you want to be saved, let God help you turn your life around.
Have you ever seen the old movie, The High and the Mighty? On a flight over the ocean, the pilot’s voice announces to the passenger cabin, "We have a problem and we cannot correct it. We are not going to make it. I tell you this so that you might prepare yourselves for the inevitable."
Upon hearing the announcement, an elegantly dressed woman begins to remove the diamond pendant from around her neck, and then takes the large ring from her finger. She peels off her false eyelashes and wipes the makeup from her face. A long scar is now visible on her forehead that the makeup had concealed. She is preparing for the end. She will die as she really is. The flight is saved, as it turns out. The plane makes it to the airport. But the woman has changed. Honesty has been offered to her, and she’s taken it gladly.
This is what John offers with his warning jolt -- a chance to let go of all the things that we think will save us – our church work, our good deeds, our jobs, our nation’s wealth and power, our technological superiority, our self-centered ways – so we can welcome the coming Lord who CAN save. If you want salvation, John says to the crowds, God expects you to bear fruit. If you want to bear fruit, take care of each other. Be honest. Be good.
People line up to be baptized at the Jordan, knowing they will hear John yelling at them, and they love it. They promise to repent. And when they do that, the love of God burns away their sins like a searing flame.
For several years, I’ve avoided preaching on the words of John the Baptist. But the spiritual discipline of listening has made me reconsider. Luke, the gospel writer, called John’s teaching good news. And if you listen, you can hear it. John’s good news is this: The greatest evil in the world is the evil that comes from within. We are our own worst enemies. John gives good advice for the holidays, or any days. Until we see the error of our ways, until we realize that we need a savior, we will never discover the meaning of Christmas.
The crowds on the banks of the Jordan ask, "What should we do?" And what John tells them is simple and practical. Share what you have. Don’t cheat people; deal fairly with them. Stop trying to get rich. Give away your power. Do justice. If these actions are simple, why don’t we do them? Maybe it is because knowing what to do is only half the battle. Someone needs to show us what this kind of life looks like, and that someone is Jesus. Jesus will bring, with Him, the advent of something totally new. God with us, Emmanuel, will give not only answers to our questions—but also the power to face ourselves.
Here is John’s good news: "The One who is coming is mightier that I. I’m not even worthy to stoop down and tie his shoes! I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will separate the good wheat from the worthless chaff."
John gives us the warning jolt, but Jesus will come soon to demonstrate the joy of living a life that bears fruit. The true meaning of Christmas is not “sleep in heavenly peace.” It is, “rise up, shepherd, and follow.”
"What should we do?" ask the people. You’ve heard the warning. You know what to do. Now trust in the One who can show you how. Jesus is the savior of the world—not because He slept in a manger, but because He died on a cross.
After listening to John’s warning, we’re ready for the gift of Jesus. We are ready for Him to remake us into people who share with willing hearts. We can wipe away the past and start over.
“The Lord is in our midst," John proclaims, "exulting over us with joy and love." Now that we’ve heard his warning, we can move on to enjoying the music and the presents and the decorations of Christmas. Jesus came, not to bless the world as it is, but to transform it into what God intends it to be.
Historians think Mary was only thirteen, or possibly fourteen, years old when the angel Gabriel visited her. Mary heard the news, and she consented to be the mother of Jesus. A great deal has been made of that fact. But I’m not convinced she had a choice.
Think of the characters in the Old Testament who had the audacity to say “no” to God’s call. God wouldn’t take “no” for an answer from them! Moses and Jonah are the best examples that come to mind. Moses tried to weasel out of leading the Jews to freedom. He reminded God that he wasn’t a good speaker. God said to Moses, "Ok, let Aaron do your speaking. I have chosen you to lead this people to the Promised Land." Jonah chose not to go to Nineveh to warn the people of their city’s destruction. He ended up in the belly of a whale where he had time to reconsider. Eventually Jonah did go to Nineveh to fulfill God’s plan. Just like you can’t fool Mother Nature, you can’t say no to God.
So Gabriel spoke to Mary and rolled out her life before her like a royal red carpet, ready to walk on. But her life would never be easy. Where were her parents? Her mother and father are never mentioned in the Bible. Maybe they were embarrassed that she got pregnant before her marriage to Joseph. Could it be that’s why Mary went out-of-town alone for three months, to visit her cousin? Poverty, scandal, the anxieties of a first-time pregnancy, morning sickness, mood swings, crazy cravings. Then, giving birth in a stable. Mary's life was a mess.
How would you have reacted, if you were Mary? A less trusting woman might have pushed Gabriel out the door and locked it behind him. She might have even moved out of town without leaving a forwarding address. But Mary trusted God that her life would be what it would be. And so, she said “yes” to the angel.
Mary sang this song: “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; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name."
She made a good decision---to visit her cousin Elizabeth, in the hill country of Judea. Of all people, the older woman understood what was happening to Mary. Elizabeth had also been called by God to be the mother of another powerful leader—John the Baptist. What a blessing for both women to support each other at a frightening time. Sometimes I wonder how people manage to get through their hard lives, without a family of faith. How good it is to celebrate our joys together. How comforting, not to have to carry sorrows alone! It’s empowering to be part of a congregation. There has been much research to support this –most recently in 2010, when a study of 98,000 Americans proved that church attendance is an excellent habit to enhance mental health.
The meeting of these women was joyful. Mary’s voice was more than music to Elizabeth’s ears. Just at the sound of her voice, baby John kicked Elizabeth vigorously. The Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth, and she cried out, knowing that something big was about to happen. Mary’s eyes met Elizabeth’s eyes. "You are blessed," Elizabeth declared, "and your child is blessed. The moment I heard your voice, my baby jumped for joy!" What a blessing, to receive a benediction from Elizabeth, who was well along on life’s journey.
Feeling encouraged, Mary burst out with one of the greatest songs in the Bible. This is a song of liberation-- sung by an unmarried teenage girl from a social class oppressed by a powerful dictatorship. Bear in mind that Middle Eastern men in those days treated women as property. This woman understood that she had been granted great power, as the chosen one of God.
"I magnify God," Mary sang. "God has done great things for me! God is lifting up the lowly." Mary’s song is good news for underdogs—and for all of us too. How could Mary have such hope when the child hadn’t even been born yet, when there was still hardship all around, when the Roman Empire still seemed to lord it over the Jews? She sings as though God’s promise is already fulfilled—that the last had become the first. I don’t think it’s an accident that Mary’s song comes right after she gets Elizabeth’s blessing. What we have here is the first church of Jesus Christ, the very first instance of two people gathering in His name, as He himself would later put it. Two women, Mary and Elizabeth, were a community of praise and hope. Christ was in the midst of them, changing their lives. Mary didn’t know all that lay ahead for herself, or for her Son. But she had gotten a glimpse of where God was going, when she shared her fate, and her faith, with her cousin.
This month, National Geographic Magazine named Mary as the ‘Most Powerful Woman’ in the World.” Mary is drastically different from most of the powerful people in our world today. She’s poor, a teenager, and a person of strong religious faith. In many ways, she’s like us. But the world is changing. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is German Chancellor Angela Merkel—a lifelong Lutheran and a woman of faith.
Hope is born in churches where people encourage one another, and build their lives on God’s promises. When one person’s hope slips, the others hold on to that person, and that hope, so it won’t die. We have the power to bless one another, as Elizabeth blessed her young cousin. That’s why we need each other. Together we wait expectantly for the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus Christ.
Once I heard a story about a man who stubbornly insisted that he could be a “lone ranger” Christian. He didn’t need to come to worship. You know people like this, who say they have such a strong spirituality, they don’t need a church family. He had no interest in getting together with other Christians for prayer or fellowship. A wise pastor went to see him, and they sat in front of the fireplace, silently watching the flames and the glowing coals. After a while, the pastor got up, took the poker, and separated one of the coals from the pile. Then he sat back down. As the two men watched, the single coal gradually cooled and died. But the coals that stayed together kept glowing brightly. They warmed and sustained one another. Finally the man said, "Pastor, I see what you mean. I will be at church this Sunday."
Jesus has promised to be here when two or three are gathered in His name, empowering one another with hope. Mary, a child overwhelmed, hurried to Elizabeth’s side. People of God, hurry to one another’s side. Comfort and care for each other. Hurry…and get ready to sing!
How many times have you heard the Christmas story from the gospel of Luke? How many times have you heard about the shepherds in the field watching over their flocks by night? How many times have you pictured angels bringing them good tidings of great joy? How many times have you imagined Mary and Joseph sitting in the stable? How often have you pictured, in your mind, the baby Jesus lying in the manger? How many times have you seen the nativity on greeting cards this month---this warm, loving image of the holy family, with the star of Bethlehem shining above? This wonderful story wraps us in comfort, like the swaddling clothes Mary used to wrap the baby Jesus. It surrounds us with joy.
The nativity scenes, the colored lights, and the warm family memories…we wrap these wonderful treasures around ourselves every Christmas. The story of the birth of Jesus keeps us warm in the winter. It comforts us and gives us hope. It brings us back to the best parts of our childhoods - every Christmas, year after year.
You know, the truth is that, no matter how progressive we Christians may think we are, we are traditionalists at Christmas. If you are like me, you are a complete sentimentalist in the last two weeks of December. I want to wish everybody a “Merry Christmas.” I don't want Christmas to get downgraded into any old holiday. I don't want to ever stop hearing this story in the second chapter of Luke. I never want to stop seeing that image of the baby Jesus, and picturing the friendly beasts in the stable, standing around Him. I want to imagine that holy night in the same way, again and again and again. I never ever, ever, want my Christmas to change. The picture in my mind, of the nativity of Jesus, has comforted me, all my life.
There’s a certain irony in all this. Tonight, we’re celebrating the greatest moment of change in human history, and yet we want to keep Christmas exactly the same as it has always been. We are celebrating the moment when God entered into our history—the birth of Christ-- and nothing has ever been the same since that Christmas Eve. God came into our time and into our lives, when Jesus was born. The meaning of Christmas is that God is recreating the world, and He is challenging us to be co-creators in the world around us.
Christmas is our favorite celebration, year after year after year. My best one was in 1955-my grandad was alive and gave me a Mary Hartline Doll from Super Circus. Even though we don’t want it to change, no Christmas is ever the same as the one before. The places we live, and the cast of characters, change. Our lives are never the same when Christmas comes around once again. Every year we are older and, hopefully, wiser, but still engaged with our God, the God of history, in making things happen.
It’s ironic that on a day when we want absolutely nothing to change, we are, in fact, celebrating the greatest change the world has ever known. We, as Christians, should not fear this. Change is part of life. In fact, it’s the nature of life on earth, to be in a constant state of change. It is the nature of the church, too.
I don’t recommend taking our sentimentality for a Christmas season and extending it over the other 364 days of a year. We shouldn’t try and build walls of tradition to hold back our creative God and the processes of change. We should not be fearful when the things that we do in the church, and the things that the church does in the world, suddenly seem different. We must not fear the new, even though we may not like everything that happens. We are called to help bring the new, as God brings the new into the world every day, every week, every month, every year, and, yes, every Christmas. The birth of Christ Jesus has changed the world.
So what do I suggest that you do on Christmas Day? What do I suggest that you do to celebrate this wonderful moment of change in your life—of the birth of Jesus, the Son of God? Wrap yourself up in the comfort of Christmas tonight, like I'm planning to do. Once again, picture in your mind the angels and shepherds and the baby in the manger and the friendly beasts and Mary and Joseph, and the star of Bethlehem. I suggest that you keep that age-old picture in your mind. Keep it exactly the way it's always been for you.
Just tonight, just for this one night, let the age-old traditions of Christmas comfort you. Let your celebration be familiar and warm and loving. There's time enough tomorrow for you and me to pick up our gifts, and stand in line at Macy’s to return the wrong sizes, and drop off the cardboard boxes for recycling, and take down the tree. After that work is over, we can go to work with God to face change, and initiate change for the glory of God's name. After New Year’s Day, we start ringing in the New Year. But tonight, especially tonight, we want the “same old, same old,” and that’s just fine.
On this one special night, relax, sit back in your pew, and let time itself stand still. Feel the heavenly peace. And, just for now, feel free to hold back the tides of change, and to listen for the sounds of those angel voices drifting through the starry, cold night.
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.
Web Site Design by Tammy Seidick Graphic Design