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January 2011 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"The Word With Us" — January 2
"Claiming His Power"
— January 9
"Come and See"
— January 16
"Follow This Fellow?" — January 23
"Blessed Are You" — January 30

“The Word With Us”
January 2, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

John 1:1-14

The prologue to the Gospel of John is a beautiful passage about Jesus. It’s a Christmas story, even though it has no shepherds or wise men or angels in it. But there’s a very sad verse in today’s gospel lesson. One of the most painful sentences in the entire Bible can be found in this reading. "He came to what was His own, and His own people did not accept him," John writes.

The Bible is full of words. There are verses of inspiration, teaching, guidance, Christian ethics, and just good storytelling. But of all the verses in the Old and New testaments, I find this sentence to be the saddest of all. "He came to what was His own, and His own people did not accept him."

Can you remember the end of your first semester of college, or your last day of boot camp? Can you recall how it felt to come home to your parents after being away? Did you feel that people didn’t know you anymore? Did you stop in at your high school and find you didn’t recognize anyone you knew before? Have you ever started a new job and then stopped in at your old office, and felt like a stranger, standing by the desk that used to be yours? Wasn’t it sad? What a letdown, to find that places where you used to belong, are no longer home.

The writer of the Gospel of John says that Jesus, the co-creator with God of the entire universe, came to His own people and they did not know Him. These are challenging words for us, on this first Sunday of 2011. Do you feel that you know Christ? Would you like to get to know Him better in the coming year? Would you like to help others find Him?

Churches are busy places. There are bulletins to proofread and print and fold and hand out. There are sermons to be preached. There’s music to be rehearsed, and there are chimes to be rung and classes to teach and bills to be paid. There are candles to be lit, especially at Advent. Sometimes we get so caught up in the details that we lose track of our mission as a congregation. That mission is to help people know Jesus Christ and, through him, to know God. All the other things we do, in our church, are secondary. In the same way, we obsess about Christmas shopping and wrapping and decorating and baking. Because we run around so much during the holidays, we start to lose sight of the meaning of Christmas. Jesus Christ is God’s gift to us at Christmas. How well do we know him? How can we know him better? I’m hoping to get better acquainted with Jesus in the coming year.

We get to know Jesus Christ in much the same way that we fall in love. When was the last time you found yourself falling in love? Even if you fall in "love at first sight," your relationship with that person still has to develop over time, to become really strong. Perhaps you have come to love someone you weren’t even sure you liked at first. Falling in love is a gradual process of getting to know him or her better. We can’t do this in an instant. The process of falling in love is complicated. In the beginning, we feel attracted. The initial excitement turns into a comfortable friendship, as time goes on. Or, at least, we hope it does.

If we are really to know Jesus Christ, the way we come to know a boyfriend or girlfriend, we have to spend some time with that person. In the case of Jesus, we need to know what He thinks, what He feels, and what His values and commitments are. If you want to know Christ, you need to put in a lot of effort. You need to know what He said, what He did, where He went, and what He cared about. One of the two best ways to learn about Jesus is by reading the Bible.

There are opportunities to learn about the Bible, right here. Join the Adult Bible study group on Sunday mornings at eight thirty. Come to worship every Sunday—we’ll be offering two services at different times on Sunday mornings, through Easter. Read the gospel of Matthew from beginning to end. Why that one? Because this year, Matthew is the main gospel text for lectionary preaching in Christian churches. Last year was the year of Luke, and next year is the year of Mark. You can learn a great deal about Jesus by reading the Sermon on the Mount—in chapters six through eight of Matthew. It’s Jesus’ commentary on the Ten Commandments. Read the Sermon on the Mount a few times, and get to know Jesus as He speaks the beatitudes, and as He turns the other cheek. Find out who was listening to Him when He first prayed the Lord’s Prayer.

The saddest words of the Bible are: "He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him." Will we fall in love with Jesus this year? Will we connect with him better, by New Year’s Day 2012? I hope so. It’s one of my personal goals.

A second way that we can get to know Christ in 2011 is by serving others in His name. Albert Schweitzer said, "We know Jesus by doing His tasks." The great theologian and missionary doctor of the last century believed a Christian could best understand the mind of Christ by serving other people as if Christ Himself were there. Dr. Schweitzer did just that—he left Europe right after he got his medical degree, taking his family with him. The Schweitzers established a hospital on the West coast of Africa.

In our daily lives, we don’t always feel eager to serve as Christ would. But, even if we don’t want to act Godly, God comes to us in disguise. A few weeks ago, I had just enjoyed the Sunday School play here at our church. Wasn’t it wonderful? The Advent season had been hectic, and I was glad to have had a break from preaching that Sunday morning so I could work ahead on bulletins and write the sermon for Christmas Eve. During the coffee hour after the play, I was eating a piece of cake and talking to the teachers. The joy of Christmas was everywhere; all of us could feel it. Then, I was interrupted by a strange man who had walked into the Sunday School room. He told me he was hungry.

I invited him to come to my office. I had a pretty good idea what he would want from me. We get quite a few requests for financial help at Christmas, mostly by phone to our office. This was the first request for help I’d had in person this year. I was ready to tell him that our church doesn’t have a discretionary fund to help people in need. I tried to think of an agency to which I could refer him. None came to mind. I knew they wouldn’t be open on Sunday, anyway. Then, the stranger showed me his injured leg. He had brought a prescription drug bottle from a drugstore. His pain killers had run out, he said, and he couldn’t walk on his leg any more after he took the last dose of pain medication. By Monday, he’d need a prescription refill, and it would cost twenty dollars. He didn’t have the money.

I felt about as stressed as you could feel. I was nervous about being alone with him, even though I had left the door open. I offered him some cans of Spaghetti-O’s people had donated to the Food Bank. “No thanks,” he replied. I gave him a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet and wished him Merry Christmas. It was my own money, not church money. "God bless you," he said to me as he walked out. And God did.

I’m pretty sure he DID spend my twenty dollars to get pain relief for his leg. I knew, in that moment, that I had needed God’s blessings at least as much as he did. I had been called to lead Christ’s ministry in this church. And yet, I had hesitated to help a fellow human being, made in God’s image. Doing a small act of kindness for that stranger had helped me to know Jesus better. If you want to know Christ, try making a difference in someone’s life in His name.

It is up to us, to look carefully for Christ, who dwells among us. John’s gospel gives us a glimpse of the living God, who has traveled with us into the New Year. Let us get to know Jesus, by living in the promise of His grace.

LET US PRAY. Dear Jesus, We are so thankful that you are here. When you came to us, you brought light into the world. Help us to reflect your light, so that darkness will not overcome it. Help us to welcome you, and to receive strangers in your name. Teach us your grace and truth. May we courageously follow you, now and forever. AMEN

John 1:11.
Matthew 5:1-11.
Matthew 5:39.
Matthew 6:9-13.
Albert Schweitzer, “Reverence for Life,” Christendom (1 [1936]: 225-39).

“Claiming His Power”
January 9, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 3:3-17

A first grade teacher was reading the story of the Three Little Pigs to her class. When she came to the part when the first pig tried to get building materials for his home, she said, "And so the pig went up to the man who had a wheelbarrow full of straw, and he said, ‘Pardon me, sir, but might I have some of that straw to build my house?" Then the teacher asked the class, "And what do you think that man said?" A little boy raised his hand excitedly and said, "I know! I know! The man said, ‘Holy smokes, a talking pig!’"

The little boy had never heard the story of the three pigs before. That’s why he was able to spot one of the big surprises in it. Many Bible stories have surprises, too. We don’t notice the surprises if we’ve heard the stories over and over. Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus is one of the gospel stories we take for granted. The story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is in all four gospels. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism is the most surprising of all. Why? Because it tells us what John is thinking when Jesus shows up to be baptized. John and Jesus were cousins. John was a little older than Jesus. For a time, Jesus was John’s disciple, and John was Jesus’ mentor. The friendship between these two men was very strong.

But still, think about it. John the Baptist, baptizing Jesus? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Jesus is the Messiah. He’s a greater leader than John will ever be. And yet, Jesus comes to the Jordan because He wants John to baptize Him! That’s the surprise. Matthew tells us that John "would have prevented Him." It’s obvious that John isn’t in a hurry to baptize Jesus. He knows, all too well, how important Jesus is. But Jesus insists. He says to John, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."

What does Jesus mean by "righteousness"? In the gospel of Matthew, the scribes and Pharisees are always criticizing Jesus for not being righteous enough. They’re shocked when Jesus disobeys the Sabbath laws to heal people. And yet we find Jesus saying, "Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." Does this make sense? How is Jesus righteous, if He breaks one of the Ten Commandments? That’s what the Pharisees want to know.

Righteousness means something different in the New Testament from what it means in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, righteousness is about what you do, or don’t do. The relationship with God looks like this: God hands down the law and His people obey.

Righteousness in the New Testament is more like partnership with God. When Jesus says his baptism by John is a way to fulfill all righteousness, he’s describing a New Testament covenant. Jesus is God with us. Christians who are baptized are chosen for ministry together. Jesus’ baptism is a milestone because it shows that God has sent His Son to “walk the walk” with His people on earth, by blessing them with the Holy Spirit. In our gospel reading, the dove represents the Spirit.

In the act of baptism, God has come to walk beside us, through Christ. "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased," says a voice from heaven. And that’s how Matthew’s account of the story goes. Affirmed by God, Jesus is ready to start His life’s work.

When we celebrate the sacrament of baptism, we recognize that God has claimed us as family. We become one with God and all Christians who have come before us, and will come after us. When God is our father, all people are our brothers and sisters. Think about that the next time you say the words, "Our Father." Look around you. Everyone you see is your sibling. So at Jesus’ baptism, God begins to dissolve the distinctions between people. When the other person is my sibling, we are of one family.

Jesus talks about fulfilling righteousness. What does being God’s family, have to do with righteousness? In both Greek and Hebrew, the word “righteousness” carries the connotation of justice. When we are baptized, we commit ourselves to fairness and advocacy—even though little children don’t know that yet. Everyone engrafted into the Body of Christ at baptism is called to live as Jesus lived, even if it makes our lives more difficult. For John the Baptist, righteousness meant you had to go to the wilderness and live like a hermit. But for Jesus, righteousness meant being out there, struggling in daily life with his brothers and sisters.

In an interview, Mother Teresa was asked what she considered to be the biggest problem in the world today. She answered, "Our biggest problem is that we draw the circle of our family too small. We need to draw it larger every day."

We aren’t baptizing anyone today, but we will be ordaining and installing seven church officers. That’s almost the same thing. We have two sacraments in the Presbyterian Church—baptism and communion. Ordination and installation of officers is almost a sacrament, though, because it’s an extension of our baptism. The Book of Order (W-4:4001) states that, “In ordination the church sets apart with prayer and the laying on of hands those who have been called through election by the church to serve as deacons, elders, and ministers of the Word and Sacrament.” God has called these seven people—not only the Nominating Committee! And you elected them. They will be elders and deacons in the Presbyterian Church for life.

Jesus comes from Galilee to the Jordan to seek out John. Matthew is the only gospel writer who mentions Galilee as Jesus’ hometown. Galilee was a small town with ordinary people. It was a town like Hokendauqua. Jesus came from God, but He also came from ordinary folks. We’re ordinary people called by the Holy Spirit to minister as God’s children.

Spiritual leadership begins when we claim the power of baptism. The miracle of Jesus’ baptism is in what he took on, as He emerged from the Jordan River. What He took on was us. We became His life’s work. And through us His glory will be revealed as we live into our calling.

Let us pray. O God, our Heavenly Father, even as you affirmed Jesus on this day and began His ministry, call us, as your ministers, to serve your family in the world where we live, work, and play. May your Holy Spirit equip us with power and inspiration. In Jesus’ name we pray. AMEN
David Albert Farmer, “Fulfilling Righteousness,” The Minister’s Annual Manual (Inver Grove Heights, MN: Logos, 2010), 214.
Matthew 3:14.
Matthew 3:15.
Matthew 5:20.
Matthew 3:17.
J. Herbert Nelson, “Claiming the Power of Baptism,” Presbyterians Today (January-February 2005), 42.
Roy Lloyd, via Ecunet, "Bottom Drawer Chat," #1202, 9/12/97.
Francisco Lozada, Jr. “Exegesis of Matthew 3:13-17,” Lectionary Homiletics, December/January, 2011, 39.

“Come and See”
January 16, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

John 1:29-42

One day Jesus noticed that two men were following Him. And what did Jesus do? He turned around and asked them, “What are you looking for?” That’s Jesus’ first line in the gospel of John. How would you answer His question? Why are you following Him? What are you looking for?

Maybe Jesus was expecting the two men to answer by saying: "We’re looking for the way to eternal life!" or "We’re seeking the truth!" But the men answered Him with a question: "Where are you staying?” Isn’t that a strange question to ask Jesus? But in a small town like Bethsaida, where this story took place, their question would have made perfect sense. If you know where a guest is staying, it tells you a lot. Not just whether he or she is staying at the Marriott or the Red Roof Inn! It tells you who that person knows in town, and maybe a little about where he or she comes from.

Jesus didn’t answer them directly, by naming the place where He was staying. Instead, He invited them on a journey. "Come and see," Jesus said. Did He mean that they should come and meet with Him in His hotel room? Or, did it mean that they should come and see who He, Jesus, really was? We don’t know. And yet, the story tells us that the two men followed Jesus and stayed with Him. And after spending time with Jesus, they were profoundly changed. They felt they couldn’t keep their excitement about Him to themselves. Right away, one of the men, a fisherman named Andrew, found his brother, Simon. He announced, "We have found the Messiah!"

Come and see. Come and see what it means to hope, to believe, and to follow. Are we willing to take Jesus up on that invitation? Back in the 1990’s, a college professor organized a mission trip so that his students could see what Jesus was doing for poor people in another part of the world. The trip was to Haiti. And while they were there, the professor arranged for the students to volunteer in health clinics, caring for disease-ridden patients. The college students visited children in schools that lacked even the most basic supplies, like books, paper, and pencils. During the evening hours, the students spent their time listening to the people of Haiti and observing their struggle for survival.

At the end of the trip, one of the college students went up to the professor and said, "You know, I’ve been thinking about going to medical school. Now, I’m sure that’s what I want to do. I want to become a doctor, and when I get my degree, I’ll come back here to Haiti and care for these people."

Several years went by, and one day that professor happened to meet that former student. The professor asked him, "Well, did you go to medical school?" And the young man replied, "Yes. I did. I’m a plastic surgeon." The professor’s face lit up and he said, "That’s great! It must be so exciting to heal burn victims and help disabled children with the skills that you have now." But the young man paused. Staring at the ground, he told the professor that he hadn’t treated burn victims or helped disabled children in his practice. His specialty was cosmetic surgery. He had been operating on people who could afford face-lifts, so they could look younger and more attractive, he said.

We’ve heard stories like this before. Each of us probably knows someone who went on a mission trip or to church camp. They told everyone that they had had a mountaintop experience with Jesus, and felt committed to follow Him for life. But then a few days or weeks or months went by, and that commitment was forgotten. But at the same time there are people who join churches and go to Christian gatherings and their lives are forever changed. So, why the difference?

You can’t understand what Jesus is really all about, by sharing just an hour or two with Him. Developing a relationship with Jesus takes time. It works best if we’re on the journey with other people. There are quite a few people in this congregation who have accepted Christ’s invitation to “come and see.” People who are involved with Sunday School, Adult Bible Study, mission projects and choir, and they all seem excited about their journeys with Christ.

But we know that not every person who comes to worship gets involved in our church. Why do so many people just peek in on us at Christmas and at Easter? Some say they are too busy. We are all busy; almost everyone has plenty to do. But deep down inside, I don’t think that’s the reason people hold back. Some are afraid that if they get too close to Jesus, He’ll change them. Change isn’t easy, and the Christian life can be hard.

Did you notice what happened when Andrew went and got his brother and brought him to Jesus? The first thing Jesus said was, "Simon, we need to change your name. You’re not Simon anymore. No, from now on we’re going to call you Peter." I think Simon Peter realized that if this Jesus was going to change his name, there were probably other changes Jesus was going to make in his life. But even so, Peter had the courage to follow Jesus. And by doing that, Peter saw his life changed. He and Andrew became part of Jesus’ inner circle. Peter fumbled and bumbled, and made mistakes, and learned leadership lessons from Jesus. He ended up being chosen as leader of the Christian movement.

Let’s take a closer look at Andrew. If it hadn’t been for Andrew, Peter might never have met the Lord at all. It seems that Andrew was an effective witness for Christ. And don’t forget that John the Baptist had been a powerful witness for Andrew before that. Andrew appears twice more, in the gospel of John—and both times, he brings people to Jesus.

Christ still invites us to “come and see.” We may not know exactly where we’re going. Think back on your own faith journey. Think about the year you started Sunday School. Think of all those surprising moments in your adult life when you learned something new about Jesus, when you heard a gospel story you had never heard before, or when someone helped you understand what discipleship was all about. And I’m hoping that your eyes are still being opened. Your understanding of Jesus hasn’t come to you overnight. It has grown over time.

First, we come. Then, we see! We are here today to look at the gifts we’ve been given, and the needs of the world. It’s the journey of a lifetime. And as we walk with Him, we become the ones who say, “Come and see. We have found the Messiah!”

Let us pray. Lord Jesus, discipleship was your idea before it was ours. You have called us by name to walk with you and to work with you. Grant us the grace to live up to the faith that you put in us. Give us the gifts we need to do your work. Strengthen us to follow you faithfully, no matter where you take us. Help us to see everyone around us as your beloved brothers and sisters. Strengthen us to take up your work as our own. AMEN

John 1:38.
John 1:39.
John 1:41.
Philip Gulley and James Mulholland, If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungracious World (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2004), 101.
John 1:42.
John 6:4-9; John 12:20-22.
John 1:41.


“Follow This Fellow?”
January 23, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 4:12-23

“The Little Red Hen” is a wonderful story for children. It’s a great story for grownups too. Once upon a time, there was a little red hen who scratched around in the dirt of the barnyard until she uncovered some grains of wheat. She called her neighbors and said, "If we plant this wheat, we shall have bread to eat.”

“Who will help me plant this grain?,” she asked them.

"Not I," said the cow. "Not I," said the duck. "Not I," said the pig.

"Not I," said the goose. "Then I will," said the little red hen. And she did.

The wheat grew tall and ripened into stalks of grain. "Who will help me reap this wheat?" asked the little red hen. "Not I," said the cow. "Not I," said the duck. "Not I," said the pig. "Not I," said the goose. "Then I will," said the little red hen. And she did.

At last it came time to bake the bread. "Who will help me bake the bread?" asked the little red hen. "Not I," said the cow. "Not I," said the duck. "Not I," said the pig. "Not I," said the goose. "Then I will," said the little red hen. And she did.

The little red hen baked five loaves of bread. All of a sudden, her neighbors were interested in what the little red hen had been doing! They demanded some bread for themselves. But the little red hen answered, "No, I shall eat all five loaves. I planted the grain. I reaped the wheat. I baked the bread, and I should be able to eat it all."

The bread of faith is here for us at our church. We want the rewards of the Christian life—the same way the little red hen’s neighbors want to eat the bread. But we can’t eat our fill of the Body of Christ, unless we live the lessons the gospels teach us. The little red hen works hard. We must do the same. We have to be willing to follow this fellow, Jesus—to “who knows where.”

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus calls four disciples. He beckons to them, calling, "Follow me," Notice He doesn’t say, “Demonstrate that you understand Christian theology by getting a passing grade on my quiz.” He simply says to these fishermen, "Follow me."

They don’t say, “Not I!” They don’t say: "Lord, first let me go and bury my father. Lord, let me get my house in order.” They don’t even say, “Fishing on the Sea of Galilee may not seem like much, but it supports my family, and this is my home.” Jesus says, "Follow me," and four men immediately go off with Him.

Peter and Andrew, James and John don’t have a clue what they are in for. They only know they feel compelled to follow Jesus. What an unrealistic story! Could this really have happened? Actually, it happened pretty often, in those days. History tells us that young men left their occupations to follow rabbis like Jesus. There were many preachers, teachers, and healers who led crowds of believers from town to town.

Pied pipers aren’t always trustworthy. In the mid-twentieth century, we saw false prophets who did great harm by their evil actions. Adolf Hitler, Jim Jones, and Charles Manson are a few of the charismatic leaders I can remember, who persuaded people to do dangerous things. The consequences were terrible.

We’ve learned the lessons of history. We come to church and we read the Bible. We listen to the news and check the front page of The Morning Call. We consult people we love when we make decisions. We would certainly hold back if a stranger asked us to follow him. And yet these fishermen take the extraordinary risk of going off with a stranger, knowing nothing about what He stands for. Little do they know that they are the very first Christians! Andrew has no idea that he will become the patron saint of three countries--Russia, Greece, and Scotland---in fifteen hundred years. The four men don’t foresee that three of them will die for their faith, or that Jesus Himself will be crucified.

What do Jesus’ words, “follow me,” mean to us? We’re here because God put us here today, to be doers of the Word. We know a lot more about Jesus than the four fishermen did. We admire the Christian heroes of our own time—people like Mother Theresa and Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, Jr. and Albert Schweitzer. We’re very sure that Jesus is no false prophet. And yet, we keep our distance from Him. "Jesus, I believe in you, but don’t ask me to follow you,” we say to Him. “I have work to do. People depend on me. I’m with you in Spirit, but I can’t pick up and follow you right now.” Haven’t you said this, at one time or another? I have.

Being Christian means we make all our plans in terms of Christ. Here’s some good news about that. Jesus promises that He will teach us how to be disciples. His work may not come naturally to us. Some of us are very reserved. I remember taking a grade of zero in high school so I wouldn’t have to give a speech in a classroom. I sang my first solo on a balcony so I wouldn’t have to see the faces of the congregation. I was that shy! Jesus promises to teach us how to reach others. Jesus will use our little deeds of love and hope and encouragement. He will give us courage to live out our faith. We won’t necessarily know where all this will lead.

Every Sunday, we gather to consider these questions: "What does being a Christian mean? Do we really want to follow Jesus? Do we make our decisions according to His example? Do we look to Him to show us the way? Is He the great light that shines for us?"

The disciples were brash and stubborn. They had no education at all. They smelled like fish. They had to learn, day by day, how to be the church. We are like them in some ways, even though most of us went to Sunday School, and high school, and even college, and none of us smell like fish! Our calling is to be faithful to Jesus’ example. In ninety percent of the references to discipleship in the New Testament, the Greek word refers to ALL the people who follow Jesus—not just the Twelve. We don’t have to be pastors or church officers. We can be good disciples by visiting the sick, taking care of children, hugging the people we love, greeting visitors to our church, making music for our congregation, trying to do a decent day’s work, or taking cereal to the Food Bank. There is no event in our lives so commonplace that Jesus doesn’t participate in it. Every moment presents an opportunity. When we confess our misspent hours, God forgives us. We don’t have to feel miserable about failure. Jesus frees us from our mistakes, so we can pick up and follow Him—again and again.

Discipleship can be extraordinarily hard sometimes. We may find ourselves coming down on the side of grace, even if others think we are reckless or silly to do so. We may have to disagree with people we care about. We may have to learn about parts of life we’d prefer to ignore.

Jesus is inviting us today to be fishers of men and women and children. In every moment, God calls us to follow Christ—to share our faith, and to live with purpose, hope, and love.

I close with this prayer from the Republic of the Congo. "Dear Lord, You be the needle and I be the thread. You go first, and I
will follow wherever you may lead." AMEN

Matthew 4:19.
Brett Younger, “Steps in the Right Direction,” Abingdon Preaching Annual 2011(Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2010), 24.
N. T. Wright, Matthew For Everyone, Part One (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 30-33.
James 1:22.
Sara Covin Juengst, Encounters With Jesus (Louisville: Horizons, 1996), 20.


“Blessed Are You”
January 30, 2011
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Matthew 5:1-12

When life has gotten you down, blessed are you.

When you see people suffering and try to help, blessed are you.

When you try to make peace, even though you have to fight your emotions, blessed are you.

When you take risks for Christ, blessed are you.

When you feel you can’t rest until the kingdom of God has come to earth, blessed are you.

The Sermon on the Mount isn’t new to us. But we can find surprises in the Beatitudes each time we hear them. A“beatitude” is a blessing. Jesus is teaching the disciples about the blessings of life in the heavenly kingdom. He blesses people the world seems to curse. And, what’s more, Jesus is doing more than telling us how to live. He’s announcing changes in the world that have already started to happen.

The surprises begin with His first statement: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven." We don’t think of the poor in spirit as blessed. The world seems to prefer the perky and the peppy. Who, exactly, are the poor in spirit? They aren’t just modest people. The poor in spirit are at the end of their spiritual ropes. Their energy is gone. They feel defeated. A psychologist might call them depressed. People who feel that the life has been sucked out of them are the same people who are most ready for God’s blessing. They’re ready because their only hope for security rests in God.

We may be even more surprised to discover that those of us who mourn are blessed. When we have lost someone precious to us, we feel like our hearts have been ripped from our chests. We mourn life’s unfairness. When we hear of starving children, we mourn. When we see lives wasted by violence, we mourn. When we see freedom denied, we mourn. It’s tempting to turn away from the pain of life and to try to tough it out. But Jesus says to His disciples that people whose hearts are open to sorrow will be comforted in God’s kingdom.

The more we hear of Jesus’ blessings, the more surprised we are. We don’t expect the meek to be blessed. Aren’t they the ones who don’t stand up for what they want? But Jesus blesses those people. Some people hunger and thirst for righteousness because they see what’s happening to God’s children and they can’t stand it. Jesus says they are blessed, too.

Jesus’ first blessings seem to be directed primarily to people who have no choices. The poor in spirit have been clobbered by circumstances. People who hunger and thirst for righteousness feel defeated by powerful leaders. Today, we feel like we have more control than ancient peasants of Palestine. Jesus’ other blessings are for people who can choose mercy, peacemaking, and purity---people like us.

Peacemaking is so hard when we are hurt and our emotions are raging. Nevertheless, Jesus offers a blessing to those who refuse to repay evil for evil. Jesus blesses people who MAKE peace---not just the people who LOVE peace.

Jesus saves the last blessing for Christians whose faith leads them into danger. We Americans rarely suffer persecution for our faith. But we see injustice all the time. Children are bullied. Older people are cheated. And we are downsized in the workplace because of age, injured in hit and run accidents, or unfairly blamed for problems. Have you ever pushed your faith as far as it would go, without knowing where it would take you?

One European king stood up for his beliefs during World War II. King Christian the Tenth, of Denmark and Iceland, was a true Christian. He supported the Allies and believed in democracy. In 1915, he signed a new constitution granting women the right to vote. Up to the end of his life, King Christian resisted the occupying Nazis. He wouldn’t allow persecution of the Jewish people in his kingdom. When the Nazis forced the Danish Jews to wear yellow stars, he himself walked the streets wearing a Jewish star! King Christian’s countries were small compared to Germany. He knew he couldn’t defeat Hitler on the battlefield. But King Christian put up a valiant moral struggle. One day he observed a Nazi flag flying above a Danish government building. He reminded the German commander that the Nazi flag violated the treaty between the two nations. He said, “That flag must be removed before twelve o'clock; otherwise I will send a soldier to remove it.” At five minutes before twelve, the flag was still flying, and the king announced that he was sending a Danish soldier to take it down. 'The soldier will be shot,' the Nazi officer answered. The King calmly replied, 'I think I should tell you that I will be that soldier.'" King Christian wasn’t shot down for taking the flag down. But he was put under house arrest until the war ended, and died two years later.

Jesus turns our understanding of blessing upside down. In the kingdom of God, the first are last and the last are first. The Beatitudes are not for those we usually think of as "blessed." We think of people with good looks, money, power, youth and perfect health as the "blessed" ones in our competitive culture. That’s the real world. Can we survive if we try to live the beatitudes? Isn’t the Sermon on the Mount unrealistic? We aren’t saints. We aren’t kings. Are we up to this task?

What do followers of Jesus look like? People who live the beatitudes start out like everybody else, I think. But I believe that many years of trying to live like Christ make us different. As we hear the good news of the scriptures, and as we follow the teachings of Jesus, our values change. Our lives as a congregation are lit by the light of Christ.

We are a blessed people. We don’t have to start living these beatitudes. We already live them! Because we’ve been blessed with God’s love, we bless others in Jesus’ name. Every time we baptize a baby, every time we hug a friend, every time we lay our hands on the shoulders of a newly-ordained officer, we are passing on God’s blessing to another person. Every time we share a home-cooked meal or write a thank-you note or lovingly record the minutes of a meeting, we share the blessings of God. Every time we bake macaroni and cheese for Vacation Bible School, or sing with the choir, or dry dishes in the church kitchen, or sit and listen to somebody’s troubles, we bless the people around us in the name of Jesus. We aren’t perfect. But, little by little, we’re becoming the people God created us to be.

Let us pray. Gracious God, we are thankful for your blessings. We pray that we may continue to find joy and purpose in service to others. Make us vessels of your mercy and forgiveness for all. Give us ears to listen as you speak to us in the quiet. Grant us courage to work for peace. In Jesus’s name we pray. AMEN

Mt. 5:3.
“Matthew 5:1-12,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 8 (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 178.
“Kristian X,” Cambridge Biographical Dictionary (Edinburgh: W & R Chambers, 1990), 842.
C. Thomas Hilton, Be My Guest: Sermons on the Lord's Supper (Nashville: Abingdon, Press, 1991), 41.

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