May 2016 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
"A Scary Place" — May 1
"Spirited Speech" — May 15
"Messages From God" — May 22
"Choosing A God" — May 29
“A Scary Place”
May 1, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
Rev. 21:10; 21:22 to 22:5
Revelation is probably the most difficult book of the Bible. It’s
well known for its weird mixture of battles and lakes of burning
sulfur and strange creatures. It scares people who try to read it.
Unlike Leviticus and Numbers, Revelation is far from boring. There
are dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, and mouths
with swords in them. Lord, have mercy!
People who see Shakespeare plays for the first time, say, “Why
do “Hamlet” and “Macbeth” have so many clichés?” It’s really the
other way around. Shakespeare wrote many of the expressions we
hear every day. They were new with him, but now everyone uses
them. Words and phrases from Shakespeare plays are all around
us—like ‘eaten out of house and home” and “knit up the raveled
sleeve of care.” The same thing is true of the book of Revelation.
This last book of the Bible has had a huge impact on the way we
think and speak.
If you read the book aloud, it takes about two hours. As you
read, you will hear, in your mind, choruses from Handel's Messiah.
In the war scenes, you will hear echoes of the “Battle Hymn of the
Republic.” Those words came from Revelation.
The book of Revelation has inspired rock and roll. Singer Pat
Boone had a hit in the 1950’s, “Everybody’s Gonna Have a
Wonderful Time Up There,” about its vision of heaven. Hymns like
“Holy, Holy, Holy,” and “Crown Him With Many Crowns” were
inspired by scenes from the last book of the New Testament. Why has Revelation provoked so much curiosity? Why do we sing about
its vision of heaven so often?
The world today is a scary place, but it was in 70 AD too.
Exiled Christian leader John of Patmos composed Revelation as a
letter to give hope to persecuted Christians in seven churches on the
west coast of Asia Minor. It’s based on an amazing dream he had.
The Roman conquerors had outlawed Christianity because believers
refused to worship the emperor. Christians were forced to pretend
to worship Caesar and stay away from church. Their belief in Jesus
as Savior was falling away. John had been separated from the
Christian flocks and exiled to a deserted Greek island, because his
preaching so angered the Roman conquerors.
We live in a frightening time; that’s no surprise to any of you.
God’s very creation is in danger. Basic services like clean water are
breaking down. Two hundred species of plants and animals are
becoming extinct every day. We see the evidence of decline all
around us in the Lehigh Valley. Although the best-known cases of lead poisoning in drinking water have been in Flint, Michigan, we
hear that the tap water in center city Allentown is severely polluted,
too. A dozen young people in Lehigh and Northampton counties,
perhaps more, died of heroin overdoses this year. Why should young
people, so beautiful and energetic and full of life, be in such despair
that they need chemical highs? In large part because companies
have gone overseas leaving few employment opportunities. So many
kids graduate with no hope of getting a job better than bussing dirty
dishes and trash in diners. They grow up without knowing Jesus
and thinking religion is for old people.
The frightening news goes on and on. If ever there was a time
when the world needs the healing grace of Jesus Christ, it is now.
Sometimes we wonder if this is the end of the world. Perhaps this is
why the book of Revelation appeals to us. It brings out our deepest
longings for healing. You might be asking the same question Jesus
asks in today’s gospel reading: “Do we want to be made well?”
The destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 AD seemed like
the end of the world to John’s congregations. For them, it had been
the home of God. To give them hope, the author of Revelation
invites those seven churches in Asia Minor to move out of Babylon
(the symbol of the Roman Empire’s domination) and into the grace
of the city of God in heaven.
And what a city it is, this new Jerusalem in the Book of
Revelation! It’s much better than angels and harps at the pearly
gates! The streets are paved with gold in the heaven that John of
Patmos describes. There's no need for a temple because God is
everywhere around them. The gates are always open and the gifts of
creation are abundant for all nations of the earth.
The Tree of Life is planted on each side of the river of the
water of life and produces twelve kinds of fruit. Why was this so
exciting? We buy fruit at the supermarket—fresh, frozen, inside
donuts and parfaits, on top of cheesecakes and made into jelly. But
remember that the poor Christians in the cities of Asia Minor didn’t see—much less eat—fresh fruit! They lived on home-baked bread
and water they carried in jars from the wells.
I think of heaven in Revelation, every time we pray the Lord's
Prayer together: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as
it is in heaven." Those of us who know the saving grace of Jesus
Christ need to live out our belief that God intends to restore the life
of all creation to the Garden of Eden in Genesis.
The new, beautiful city of God is not just about pie in the sky
when we die. This vision is about life in God's presence now, a life
that keeps God's commandment to love one another and mirrors
God's glory today and every day!
Revelation is so powerful to faithful folks like us, not only
because it makes us think of the Hallelujah Chorus and “Stairway
to Heaven.” In the midst of our fears, our dreams for a future life
with God break into the present. Revelation gives us a beautiful
picture of the afterlife—a world of unending joy where we will
hunger no more.
If you decide you want to read Revelation, start with Chapter
21 and 22. Let John’s vision of heaven give you hope, and let that
vision prepare you for reading the most frightening parts of the
book-- chapters six through nineteen.
Does God's glory shine out from you, from your house, and
from our church? We must choose every day to demonstrate our
love for Christ and for our brothers and sisters. Those people in the
churches of Asia Minor, who never got to eat fruit, and who
expected to live less than thirty-five years, held onto their visions of
heaven’s glory. They preached their visions to their poor neighbors,
who lived in fear of the Roman soldiers. What those brave early
Christians did to spread their hope for heaven, is one of the reasons
why we can worship together today. Let’s show this fallen world
that Christians live in the grace of the city of God.
God, help us move into the city of grace where we embody your love and hope and
healing for ourselves and for the whole world. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.
May 15, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
Once upon a time, as the Genesis story tells us, the entire
population of the world spoke the same language. The people had
heard God's command to fill the earth and spread out over the land.
But some people thought they knew better than God. They didn't want to scatter over the earth, so they built a city with a high tower.
They thought they were powerful enough to defy God's
command. They wanted to be praised as the world’s greatest people.
Because the tower builders were rebelling against God’s will,
God punished them. He confused their language so that they could
no longer understand one another. Work on the tower became
impossible. In the end, the people scattered, the way God had
wanted them to do in the first place. The unfinished tower came to
be called Babel, which actually meant "gate of God.” “Babel” was
an early version of the name Babylon, but it sounded much like the
Hebrew word balal, which means "confuse." Because of the Genesis
story, the word “Babel” came to mean confusion. So, at the tower of
Babel, the Lord made babblers out of the people by confusing their
That old story is probably a myth. Those ancient people may
have made it up, to explain why we don’t all speak the same
language. Or maybe they were trying to figure out why the
foundation of a tower was still standing in the desert. But did you
notice that those pre-historic folks seem to have imagined the world,
before the tower of Babel, as a society that spoke one language? God meant the world to be a place where His children could
communicate without confusion.
When you think about it, God’s plan was a good one.
Consider how much trouble poor communication can cause-- even
between people who speak the same language. How many
marriages, for example, have problems because the partners don’t
share their real concerns? When they do talk, one partner doesn't
really listen to the other. Sometimes, when both parties are trying to
communicate, powerful feelings-- like exhaustion, jealousy, and
resentment-- - get in the way. And we know that communication
difficulties are not limited to marriage.
Today’s reading from Acts is the account of Pentecost—the
birthday of the church. This is the day to celebrate the arrival of the
Holy Spirit among the followers of Jesus. It’s one of the big three
celebrations of Christianity, second only to Easter. In the Middle
Ages, Pentecost was a more holy day than Christmas. Not so today.
Have you ever seen a rack of Pentecost cards in a drugstore? Have
you ever baked Pentecost cookies? Not likely, and it’s not a problem. The church will never have to issue a call to “KEEP THE HOLY
SPIRIT IN PENTECOST.” This holiday is ours alone.
The major miracle of Pentecost was one of communication.
After the Holy Spirit fired up those followers of Jesus in the upper
room in Jerusalem, they rushed out into the streets and began
preaching. Because Pentecost was a major festival for the Jews, the
celebration of the grain harvest, the city was filled with thousands of
people from every corner of the Roman Empire. They had very little
in common, other than the fact that they were all Jews. The reading
from Acts helps us understand how diverse this crowd was---“Jews
and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs...." and so on. Only the rabbis
understood Hebrew. Each group spoke its own language, but when
the disciples of Jesus started preaching, all speaking Aramaic,
everybody understood. It was amazing! God had reversed the
punishment of the people at the tower of Babel.
At Babel, the people had started out with the ability to
understand one another in a common language. They had lost that ability when communication ended. Their attempt to build the
tower had to stop. In contrast, at Pentecost, people who spoke many
different languages understood the gospel message clearly. The
Bible says they were all together in one place—and that is true in
more ways than one. They were united by the Holy Spirit.
One of the goals of Christianity is to help us understand one
another. But that is only part of the story. Jesus told us that we need
to love our neighbor, and even to love our enemies. It's possible to
clearly understand someone, but to disagree profoundly with him or
her. I suspect that the Israelis and the Palestinians each have a
clear understanding of what the other side wants, but they cannot
find common ground-- literally.
How did this story happen? After His resurrection, Christ had
told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem until he could give them His
Holy Spirit. This group of people, so frightened, huddled in the
upper room, knew that they couldn’t get the Holy Spirit on their own. They waited until Jesus kept His promise, and God gave them
a future. And that’s what happened at Pentecost.
The Pentecost story is strange to us. We have a tough time
trying to imagine the barriers between us disappearing. Life, as we
experience it, is a lot more like the Babel story than the Pentecost
account. Israelis vs. Palestinians, parents vs. children, husband vs.
wife, employer vs. employee, student vs. teacher, liberal versus
conservative, and on and on. Even in churches, people can't agree
with one another and there are strong disagreements within
congregations. The Internet brings the people of the world together,
electronically, but the messages we write and speak online, seem to
divide us more than they unite us—especially in the U.S. in an
But what a great story this lesson from the Book of Acts is, for
a world where so many people are paralyzed by fear and
overwhelmed by chaos. Pentecost is the event that started the
Christian church, more than two thousand years ago. Suddenly, people not only understood one another, but they were also brought
together with a common goal. Acts tells us that more than three
thousand people became baptized Christians that day.
And so, though we have all too much experience with
misunderstandings and disagreements, we also have the hope that
Christianity holds out before us-- -that the love of Christ can break
through any barrier. If there is one thing that will be different in
eternity, it will be that we will all understand each other.
It's no coincidence that the day the church was born was the
day people discovered they could communicate with anyone. The
need for us to speak about our faith is stronger than ever in this
post-Christian age, when cultural pressure against witnessing is so
strong. Our friends and neighbors need the joy and peace that can
come only from Christ. God will help you find moments to tell them
about what you have seen and heard. And when the Holy Spirit
gives you the words to speak of your faith, those words will be a gift
to your hearers.
Let us pray. Come Holy Spirit, and teach us to say things we would never have said by
ourselves. Breathe upon us, Holy Spirit of God, and prepare us to serve. AMEN
“Message From God”
May 22, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
There’s a “Peanuts” comic strip that shows Lucy, walking with
a sign that reads, “Jesus is the answer.” Along comes Snoopy
holding his own sign, “What’s the question?” And what IS the
question for us on Trinity Sunday? I think it might be, “How can we
understand the Trinity?” This morning I want to talk about ways
the triune God works in our world, and in us.
Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday in the church year that is
based on an abstract theological concept. People don’t understand
it, and pastors avoid preaching on it. Some say the doctrine of the
Triune God came from the Dark Ages and should have stayed there.
Last Sunday, we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit at
Pentecost. In my sermon on the second chapter of Acts, I talked
about the coming of the Spirit and what he or she (not IT) means for
us. The Trinity is three persons of God. It’s not just up in heaven,
it’s living in us: God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer and the Holy
Spirit, the Sustainer.
For centuries, Christians have worshiped the Trinity. St.
Patrick was one of its greatest proponents. In the fourth century
A.D., St. Patrick held up the shamrock, when he was preaching to
the ancient people of Ireland, to explain the Father, Son and Holy
Ghost. He used the three parts of the shamrock to show how
Christianity was different from other beliefs that dominated the
world in the final days of the Roman Empire. People all over the
world still believed that the Emperor was God. People in the
Empire were told that they existed to serve the Empire under his
command. Patrick, who had been a Roman citizen all his life, didn’t
buy this. He saw the Emperor as a false god. Patrick understood
the triune God to be God with us and for us. The shamrock became
his tool for evangelism—and it worked! Ireland became Christian
within a century, because of his skillful teaching.
Five centuries earlier, the Apostle Paul had written his letter to
the Romans. In Romans, Paul doesn’t use the word, Trinity; in fact,
you won’t find the word, “Trinity,” anywhere in the Bible. But Paul
does explain what life in the triune God offers.
For Paul, the nature of the Trinity is the idea of community.
From the beginning, God has wanted a relationship with those He
created. Despite our best efforts, we cannot live up to the standards
necessary to be in communion with our perfect God—in other
words, we can’t be perfect like Jesus because we are born to sin.
Paul begins the fifth chapter of Romans by saying, “it is only
because we are justified by faith that we have peace with God
through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Only through Jesus are we able to
be in a restored relationship with God. Through Jesus that we
discover that God has been relentlessly pursuing us all along.
Even as we celebrate God’s amazing grace, life makes it clear
that our hope to share in God’s glory has not yet been fulfilled.
People are hungry, children are dying, we experience failures every
day, and life still hurts. It was no different in Paul’s day. But Paul
goes on to say that we can boast in our suffering as well as in our
hope for God’s glory.
Paul’s words don’t seem to offer much comfort. How can we
be glad about suffering? If it is not the suffering, exactly, that brings
us joy, what is it? Paul says it is the endurance, the understanding
of others, and the hope that come from our sufferings that make us
The contemporary Bible we gave our confirmands this year,
Eugene Peterson’s The Message, translates Paul’s words like this:
“We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with
troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate
patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered
steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In
alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged.
Quite the contrary—we can’t round up enough containers to hold
everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy
If we weren’t part of a Christian community, if we didn’t live by
Christian values, we would have a harder time finding those end
results of suffering. We tend to focus on the causes of our pain, or on
our feelings of bitterness. We want revenge. We become hopeless.
We forget that the God we know through Jesus, is the God of hope.
Only through the Holy Spirit can we find God’s presence and love in
the midst of hardship.
Because God’s essence is communal, it is not surprising that
hope is strongest in community. When we suffer alone, there is no
one to share our burden. So often we hide behind a smile, because
we don’t want others to see our pain or disappointment. When we
do this, we rob ourselves of a source of comfort and we deny others
the blessing of sharing in God’s work.
We are created in the image of God—the Father, the Son and
the Holy Spirit. The three persons live in relationship with each
other. We are made to live in relationship with God and with others.
We can’t make it alone. When we enter into a Christian community,
when we allow God’s grace, love, and peace to be restored in us, we
can feel hope.
We are brought into God's presence simply by believing in
Jesus. We don’t have to do everything right. We don't even have to
have a huge amount of belief. In Jesus, we have peace with God.
Once we've accepted Jesus, the Holy Spirit within us quietly works
on our behalf. And meanwhile, we're OK with God because of Jesus,
and able to communicate with Him and hear Him through the Holy
There is a satirical online magazine called The Onion that
published a short news article about the Trinity on the Internet last
month. I laughed out loud when I read it. I usually don’t like it when
people make fun of religion. But this piece struck me as funny,
because so many people live their lives never understanding what
the Holy Spirit does. In its top headline, with the dateline,
“Heaven,” the Onion article said God had announced plans to
“downsize” the Trinity by phasing out the Holy Ghost, and leaving
only God and Jesus in charge! I quote from the article, “Given the
poor economic climate and the unclear nature of the Holy Ghost’s
duties, I felt this was a sensible and necessary decision.”
But we don’t believe in only the Father and the Son. We
believe in the Holy Spirit too. The Trinity promises a relationship
with a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, with a
Savior, and with an ever-present Spirit. God’s mission becomes our
journey. There are times when we stray from the path. But we never
Lord Jesus, we give you thanks that even though in our limitations
and sin, we could not come to you, you loved us enough to come to us.
You did not leave us in the dark. You revealed the way to eternal life.
For your revelation to us and your presence among us, we give praise
and thanks. AMEN
“Choosing A God”
May 29, 2016
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers
I Kings 18:20-21, 30-39
Have you ever noticed, in the Bible, how often the underdog
wins? For example, Moses triumphed over Pharaoh and his army.
David won against the giant Goliath. And Daniel survived the lion’s
den. Elijah stood up for Jehovah. And Jesus, the Son of God, has
been the greatest witness of all.
Elijah was one of the first great prophets of the Old Testament.
He preached God's message in Israel, after the death of King
Solomon. He spoke boldly against Ahab, his earthly king. Ahab had
married Jezebel, who worshiped Baal, a pagan god of water.
During times of drought, the people and the royal couple had been
praying earnestly to Baal to bring rain. Elijah knew their prayers
were worthless. He knew that Baal was not God.
The people of Israel had been God’s people, but now they feared
taking a stand against the king and queen. What’s more, the whole
country blamed God—and Elijah-- for the dried-up earth. Elijah
knew that he was right in defending his God against the false god
Baal. He didn’t care if how unpopular he would become with Ahab
and Jezebel. He understood his responsibility as God’s prophet.
In First Kings, Elijah confronts the priests of Baal to
demonstrate the emptiness of their message. He mocks the 450
pagan priests. They respond to his mockery by slashing themselves
and dancing around the altar they have constructed—asking Baal to
bring the rain. He asks if their god is asleep or on a journey, chiding
the priests to call out louder.
Elijah is so daring because he believes that the priests of Baal
are wrong and he knows that Jehovah is the one and only God. He
has faith that God will answer as the prophet asks and will send fire
to consume the holocaust. And that is exactly what happens!
Elijah courageously speaks God’s word, without counting the
cost. We are called as Christians to do likewise. Our culture
practices idolatry, not worshiping Baal, but placing too much
importance on power, wealth, and prestige. We are commissioned,
through our baptism, to preach that there is one God.
Jesus, before He begins His ministry, confronts these same
false gods. He allows himself to be tempted by Satan in the desert.
First, Satan offers Jesus power. He tells Jesus to command these
stones to turn to bread. After forty days in the desert Jesus is
obviously hungry, but He knows that humans do not live on bread
alone. As Jesus reminds Satan, we are nourished through God's
word. Next Satan entices Jesus with the sin of great wealth. He
displays all the kingdoms of the earth before Him, saying that all earthly power can belong to Jesus if He will simply bow down and
worship Satan. But Jesus insists on worshiping God alone. Lastly,
Satan baits Jesus to demonstrate His status. Satan takes Him to the
parapet of the Temple and challenges Him to throw himself down,
promising that angels will come to rescue Him. But Jesus again
resists because He is confident that the power, wealth, and prestige
granted Him are to be used to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth.
Power is a gift that is given in some measure to each of us. You
think you have no power? You’re wrong. I’m not talking only
about your right to vote, as an American citizen. You had the power
to show up at church this morning and make us happy to see you.
You have power to give us your new phone number, or your email
address, if you sign the friendship pad in your pew. You have the
power to get your friend on the prayer list if you fill out that little
form in the bulletin insert.
If we use personal power judiciously to support the common
good, then we have used it wisely. So many veterans of the military
have put their lives on the line for the common good. That is a
strong, sacrificial use of power.
Unfortunately, people who have power, use it to lord it over
others. They won’t let up until they have achieved the outcome they
expect, or the rise or fall of the person whom they seek to dominate.
In the gospel of Luke, you’ll remember, Jesus warned against this
problem. He instructed His apostles that they were not to seek the
places of power, but rather to serve all people they were to meet. He
reprimanded them for competing to be “the greatest.”
Wealth is a second false god that challenges us. We are
influenced by others to think that the more stuff we have, the more
acceptable we will be in society. We are bombarded with the
message that wealth is the ticket to success. Many generous people
give to charitable causes, educational institutions, and churches.
Yet, too many people today spend huge amounts of money to
enhance their images.
Our cultural obsession with celebrities is ridiculous. More than
three hundred American and British newspapers reported that Kate
Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, had chosen to wear a
designer dress to her son’s baptism. Then she apparently wore THE
SAME DRESS to a garden party the next week. She liked the dress!
But there’s a subtle message there. People of high status don’t wear
the same outfit twice in public. Remember, about fifteen years ago,
when John F. Kennedy Jr. failed the bar exam in New York State?
The headlines shouted, “The hunk flunks!” A feature editor wrote a
nasty, catchy headline and got some laughs. Students got the
message that failing an academic test is a disgrace.
Prestige is a third false god of today's world. All of us like to be
recognized for achievements. However, there are people who live
simply to win awards. These people worship the god of status.
Unfortunately, some of them choose to associate only with people
who (they feel) are intelligent, attractive, and influential. Labels
matter to these people. That’s why knockoff designer handbags sell
well. That’s why Ivy League colleges get more applications than
state colleges, even though tuition costs are higher. People who
worship prestige, may not want to associate with someone who can’t
help them on their way up the ladder.
Obviously few, if any, Americans worship Baal, but do you
have false gods you "worship?” Do you put your hobbies, or your
career, or your home, or your children, or your status, at the top of
your list of concerns? Those things are all somewhat important, but
at times we come close to worshiping them.
Make a list of things that you value in life, and put them in
order. Where does God come in that list? False gods and their
prophets are everywhere. We are persuaded—even forced or
shamed-- into accepting false priorities. Fortunately, people of faith
choose to be prophets, like Elijah. They have the courage to speak
LET US PRAY. Lord, teach us to number our days that we may fully appreciate the time we have. Let
us honor those who taught us sound Christian beliefs, and who showed us the power of faith, hope and
love: for mentors and teachers; for grandparents, aunts and uncles, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers.
Teach us to number our days so that we don’t strive for shallow goals. Grant us grace in the name of
Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.