November 2009 Sermons:
"The First and the Best" — November 1
We’re welcoming six new members this morning. They’ve worshipped with us. They’ve met with me and they’ve talked with the Session. They’ve taken a folder full of handouts home to read. They’ve been given more information about the Presbyterian Church (USA) than they ever expected to get. What a joy for us, that Sarah, Dorothy, Shelly, Don, Dana, and Gene have chosen to be Presbyterians.
When a person chooses God, he or she discovers that God isn’t satisfied, and wants more. God expects to be our top priority. That’s a good thing. As we give more to God, God gives us more in return.
What choices have you made lately, in your journey of faith? What paths did you choose that led to a closer walk with God or with your neighbor? I’m not asking about your big choices, like investing your money, or changing careers, or joining a congregation. Think of the hundreds of choices you make every day. Some of our small decisions- –like which dessert to order in a restaurant, or what shoes to wear to work—have nothing to do with faith in God. But others really matter, spiritually.
Here’s an example of an everyday faith decision. Let’s say I am driving, and all of a sudden, in front of me, I see a line of cars that isn’t moving at all. The lanes going in the other direction are clear, of course! I feel many emotions, none of them pleasant. I’m annoyed, helpless, and regretful that I didn’t figure out I needed to get off this highway at the last exit.
But I’m not helpless. I have choices. I can choose to grit my teeth. I can get out a map and try to find an alternate route. I can use my cell phone to notify the person I am meeting, that I’ll be late, and why. I can choose to talk to God. At different times, I’ve done all of the above. After all, there’s plenty of time. Here’s an idea, for your next traffic jam: pray for all the strangers around you in their cars. None of you wants to have to merge into one lane. In fact, nobody wants to be sitting on Route 78 at all. They want to be in the place they are going. They feel as trapped as you do. Some of them are almost out of gas. Others are late for work. Others are hungry or haven’t had their coffee yet. Feel annoyed, and then get over it! Think of your fellow drivers as an invisible congregation. They are standing in the need of prayer, just like you. Think of yourself as their spiritual leader. Saying a prayer or even reading a psalm of lament—if you happen to have a Bible in your glove compartment-- is your best choice. I am not a patient person, by any means. I have to admit I don’t always put God first when I am stuck in traffic. But I should.
Showing love for God and for your neighbor are God’s greatest commandments. That’s what Jesus tells the scribe, in our gospel lesson for today. Now that I have a license plate that says “REV JOYC” I am accountable to all those drivers around me on Route 78—as well as to God!
We have no control over so many things in our lives. Not just traffic. Not just high taxes! The economy is in bad shape. Political candidates that we support, don’t win elections, and we ask ourselves why we bothered to vote. We don’t know where our kids are, or what they’re doing, after they reach adulthood—and that’s tough for parents. Sometimes, we’d rather not know. But most of the time, we wonder.
Most of us face crises, small as well as big. A well-known speaker, whom I had paid in advance to hear, and driven to Princeton to meet, cancelled at the last minute. She had the flu. I was angry. I thought of all the times I’ve preached when I didn’t feel well. I felt like a martyr because she didn’t speak, with the flu—just for me! I didn’t want her to infect everyone at Princeton Seminary. I knew I was being selfish! So I got over it.
At times when you are frustrated and angry, you can open your heart to God. You can open your mind to the Holy Spirit, instead of slamming it shut like a drawbridge. You can try to be like Jesus. Jesus wouldn’t have asked for a refund from the Seminary when the keynote speaker got sick. He would have found something else to enjoy on campus. And I did just that. We can’t control the things that others do, and we can’t control the flu. But we can control what we do.
The Old Testament has many rules and commandments. The Ten Commandments are only the beginning. There are six hundred and thirteen commandments—A total of 365 commandments that tell you what not to do. There are 248 commandments that tell you what to do.
Today’s lesson, from the gospel of Mark, helps us sort all these commandments out. This story comes at the end of a series of verbal battles between Jesus and the scribes. A scribe was a Biblical scholar of Jesus’ time. A scribe honored the laws of the Hebrew Bible. The scribes were spiritual lawyers for the Jewish people. They argued all the time about the law. One of their favorite questions was, “Which law is most important?”
Some scribes in Mark’s gospel are hostile to Jesus. They seem to be trying to trap Him. This scribe seems to be more respectful than the others. He’s impressed with the way Jesus answers the theological question, “Which commandment is first of all?”
Jesus picks two laws for His answer. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself."
We know these laws and we like them. We don’t like selfish people. We want our neighbors to love us. But taking a look around our world, we have to admit these two laws are tough to obey. We feel like we need to be selfish, because everyone else seems to be.
The first commandment tells us that we must love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. How do we love God? How can we love with our whole being? How can we love God when God is so unlike us, and so hard to fathom? The second commandment gives us a way of responding to the first commandment. Roman Catholic volunteer worker Dorothy Day once said, "I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least." "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Still, though, this simple verse trips us up. Who is our neighbor? Our neighbor is not necessarily the one who looks like you and me. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan, in the gospel of Luke.
In that parable, Jesus tells us that everyone is our neighbor. As creatures of God, we are joined together forever. We are neighbors—the drivers stuck with us in the traffic jam, the construction workers on Route 78, the speaker who got the flu and cancelled, the person who voted for candidates we didn’t vote for, the person we don’t know, who is dating our daughter.
Jesus’ second point is even trickier than the first. "As yourself," Jesus says. How can we love others if we don’t love ourselves? Sometimes we love ourselves too much. We place our needs before the needs of others. If I had asked for a refund because my speaker cancelled, I would have gotten the money that was due to me, but I would have put my needs before my neighbor’s. Did I want the keynote speaker to get sicker? Did I want everyone at the conference to get the flu?
You and I are beloved of God. All people are our brothers and sisters. We are most fully alive when we live in love for God, and when we welcome others in God’s name . Sarah, Dorothy, Shelly, Don, Dana, and Gene, we welcome you.
LET US PRAY.
YOUR KINGDOM COME, O LORD. YOUR WILL BE DONE. WE SAY THESE WORDS IN THE LORD’S PRAYER, SO OFTEN WITHOUT THINKING OF WHAT THEY MEAN. WE THANK YOU FOR YOUR LAW OF LOVE. OPEN THE EYES OF OUR HEARTS, O GOD, SO THAT WE MAY SHOW LOVE, EVEN WHEN WE ARE ANGRY OR AFRAID, WHEN WE ARE WAITING FOR TRAFFIC TO MOVE, WHEN WE ARE ARGUING, OR WHEN WE ARE ANXIOUSLY WAITING FOR TEST RESULTS. HELP US TO KEEP YOUR TWO GREATEST COMMANDMENTS. IN JESUS’ NAME WE PRAY, AMEN.
Rev. Edward Bowen, “Love: It Takes More Than Brussels Sprouts: Mark 12:28-34,” http://www.goodpreacher.com, October 30, 2009.
Thomas Troeger, “Preaching the Lesson: Mark 12:28-34,” http://www.goodpreacher.com, October 30, 2009.
Mark 12: 30-31.
Quoted in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 158.
Do you remember the Jack Benny Program, on radio in the 1940’s and on television in the 1950’s? Mr. Benny was famous for being stingy. He had a running gag on the show about money. A robber would come up to Mr. Benny and point a gun at him. The thief would say, “Your money or your life!” Then there would be a long pause. The robber would say to the comedian, “Come on, make up your mind.” Jack Benny would stare into space for a couple of minutes. Then he would finally answer, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!” Isn’t it hard to imagine anyone who would rather be shot than hand over his or her wallet? But we don’t let go of our cash easily. That’s why Jack Benny’s stinginess is so funny.
Jesus talks about money more than any other topic in the New Testament. He always gives brilliant answers to tough questions—especially about money. In Mark’s gospel, temple scribes have been trying to catch Jesus in a mistake. But they haven’t succeeded. Jesus knows His Hebrew Bible, and He hasn’t slipped up yet. He’s never resorted to saying, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
But Jesus has just about “had it,” after several days in the temple with these scribes. Their questions are relentless. In today’s reading, Jesus accuses them of unethical practices. He declares the judgment of God against them. These are fighting words, and Jesus knows the scribes will be angry with Him. But, at this point, He doesn’t care.
Scribes held a place of honor in Jewish society in Jesus’ time. They were experts on the Hebrew Bible. Not all scribes were nasty to Jesus. But Mark portrays these legal experts as hypocrites who disregard the needs of poor people.
On the eve of Passover, Jesus condemns the scribes for devouring “widows’ houses.” Poor widows were the lowest people on the social stratum, in Jesus’ time. Women without husbands, fathers, brothers or sons had no legal rights. Scribes were supposed to protect them and their estates. Did some scribes steal the homes of poor widows, just to line their pockets? We don’t know. Jesus certainly implies this.
Our scene shifts to the Jerusalem temple treasury. In the temple’s Court Of The Women, there were thirteen receptacles for money. Although they served as collection plates, they weren’t like the plates we use for our offerings. Instead, they looked something like trumpets. Along comes our widow. She doesn’t see Jesus watching her, as she throws in two coins-- the smallest coins available in the Roman Empire. Each was worth the equivalent of a penny in modern American money.
Jesus sees an opportunity to teach here. He wants the disciples to notice what this woman is doing. In essence He tells them, “Now this is what I call discipleship.” Unfortunately, they don’t get it. How can two copper coins be as good a gift as the gold coins that wealthier people are giving to the temple? Jesus explains that the rich pilgrims have “contributed out of their abundance; but (the poor widow) has put in everything she had, all she had to live on”. What matters is not the size of your gift---it’s the seriousness of your commitment, He explains. This woman has cast her future upon the arms of God. What an act of faith!
We Americans are more like the scribes than we’d care to admit. We are appearance-conscious. Most of us see charitable giving as secondary to survival. We feel we should pay our mortgages, our office rent and our utilities, our college tuition, and our credit card bills before we help needy people. I think it’s fair to say that none of us gives God every penny we have to live on. The person who has the least, has given the most in this story. Are we like the widow? Can we see ourselves in her, as well as the scribes?
The world hasn’t changed much. We know a lot of people like the scribes, and very few, if any, people like the poor widow today. Recent studies show that poor people give more of their income to charities than people who are well off. In the past year or two, the greed of a few wealthy people has brought the world of finance to the brink of collapse. The investments of vulnerable people have made financiers rich. Many middle-class Americans have lost their homes and their jobs. The cover of this month’s AARP Bulletin shows ten young people, on the run from the law, who have made millions from Medicare fraud. The American public unwittingly paid them for their schemes.
The widow’s gift of her life savings, and Jesus’ response to it, show that God wants our whole lives. The amount of our gift doesn’t matter nearly as much as how much of a sacrifice it is. Real generosity gives until it hurts. And what better example of this do we have than Jesus’ death on the cross? His life, given for us, is the greatest gift we will ever receive. Jesus is crucified only three days after He meets the poor widow in the temple. Her sacrifice foreshadows His own.
No matter how little we have, we have been given grace that we can offer back to God in worship. Time is a gift as good as money. Baking communion bread, visiting the sick, wrapping baskets for Basket Bingo, inflating balloons for the Vacation Reading Club, persuading businesses to donate gift certificates to Presbyterian Women--—all these jobs are very important to the church. The people who do them, are busy. They have little time to give. But they love our church and they are thankful to God.
I want to tell you a story about sacrificial giving during the Second World War. The factory workers who made parachutes for the U.S. Army Air Force worked for very low pay. Their job was repetitive and boring. They had to bend over and stitch white fabric for more than ten hours every day. How could these workers stand their jobs? They gathered in one big room each morning before they started work. The manager held something like a prayer service. He reminded them that each parachute would save the life of a human being. They were asked imagine one of their own parachutes, strapped to the back of their husband, their father, their brother or their son. These laborers never complained, because the supervisor helped them feel they were serving a cause much greater than themselves.
The poor widow has no idea Jesus is watching her when she gives away all her money. She thinks her gift is a secret between her and God. And that makes today’s gospel reading so much more powerful a story. Alice Salomon, a pioneer in social work, wrote: “Character is what you do when nobody is watching.” What God sees in our hearts is what really matters. And a loving heart is a giving heart.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, thank you for the many blessings that you pour out upon us. Help us to remember these blessings each and every day of our lives. As we give to you, may we be as sincere as the woman in the temple. May our gifts accomplish your purpose in the world. By your grace, may we become the disciples you deserve. In Jesus' name. Amen.
Idea inspired by notes written by Carlos Wilton, Lectionary Preaching Workbook, Series VIII, Cycle B (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2005), 270.
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 169.
Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 260-1.
William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing, 2002), 302.
Luke Bouman, “Theological Themes in Mark 12:38-44,” Nov. 8, 2009, www.goodpreacher.com
Jay Weaver, “Busting Medicare Fraud,” AARP Bulletin, Vol. 50 No. 9, November 2009, pp. 10+
John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leader Within You (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 28.
Alice Salomon, Character is Destiny: The Autobiography of Alice Salomon (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 2.
Jesus is predicting the end of the world. According to Him, wars, earthquakes, famine, sickness and death will be coming soon. As He looks toward the temple in Jerusalem, He tells the disciples that God’s own house will be destroyed. “Not one stone here will be left on another!” Jesus says.
His disciples are stunned. What could be more permanent than the Temple? Each stone in that building weighs more than five tons! Even the smallest stones are the size of a minivan. Every inch of the exterior is covered with pure gold. Towering buildings like this never fall to the ground, or do they? If Jesus can predict that even the Temple isn’t eternal, maybe He knows when the world will end! Peter, James, John and Andrew are paying attention now.
Jesus was right. The temple actually was destroyed forty years after Jesus predicted—between 68 and 70 A.D., the Romans set fire to it. All its treasures were stolen, and it was never rebuilt. The destruction of their Temple was an sign of the end—at first. But even this didn’t spell doom for the Jews, as it turned out.
Jerusalem endured traumatic changes during the Roman-Jewish War. And good things happened to them—sooner than they had expected. God didn’t disappear when their Temple burned to the ground. The Jewish people looked for God all around them. And they began to notice that the Temple wasn’t the only holy place in Palestine. A few of them started to gather at local synagogues on the Sabbath. Then more and more came every week. And they discovered they didn’t need to worship God in an enormous Temple.
We remember September 11, 2001. If someone had told you, on September 10, that the World Trade Center was going to collapse in twenty-four hours, would you have believed it? No one predicted the sinking of the Titanic, either. In 1912, just before its maiden voyage, this ocean liner was advertised as the safest ship ever built! No one can predict the end of the world, but Jesus Himself. We know bad things will happen, and so far we have survived them. But the truth of the matter is we survivors don’t always feel God with us. We need to believe that God is here.
The way we handle our catastrophes, matters to God. When things are going badly, we may stop noticing what is going on around us. In today’s passage from Mark, Jesus is warning His disciples to keep alert after He is gone. Their days of security are numbered. As they take the gospel to the world, they will have to live on the run, and to do that, they will have to master their fear. We can only do this if we have faith.
Frightening events—even wars and terrorism—are not necessarily signs of the end. The good news of this gospel story is that Jesus is holding out hope for Peter, James, John and Andrew, and for us. Life is not ending! Instead, it’s beginning. We are entering the season of Advent. Hear the good news from Psalm 46: “The Lord of Hosts is with us.” He will bring history to its fulfillment in the coming of Jesus. Old Testament prophets use the symbol of birth pangs to describe the coming of a new heaven and a new earth. Giving birth is painful, as any new mother will testify. But it is a wonderful thing, and the result is worth it.
Do you remember how people panicked about Y2K? Do you even remember what Y2K was? It was only ten years ago. Many people were terrified on January 1st, 2000. Some actually believed that the world would come to an end. There were rumors that all the computer systems would fail and banks would collapse. Some said we would be thrown into darkness for days, even weeks. Pastors preached that the end was near. In our gospel reading, Jesus says, “Many will come in my name, and they will lead you astray.” People stockpiled emergency supplies in their basements, so they could ride out the dreaded disaster on New Years’ Day. Shoppers snapped up baby formula, electric generators and sleeping bags. They saved water in gallon jugs. They bought huge quantities of batteries and flash lights. But nothing happened.
What about earlier predictions of the future? Here are just a few that are laughable now, because they were so wrong. Frank Knox, U.S. Secretary of the Navy, said on December 4, 1941: “Whatever happens, the U.S. Navy is not going to be caught napping.” Three days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Economist Irving Fisher said, on October 16, 1929: “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” A few days after that: we experienced the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression. In 1943, IBM Chairman Thomas Watson said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” A Decca Records executive in 1962, rejecting a request for a recording contract for the Beatles, said: “We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on their way out.”
Don’t be misled by false prophets. Jesus warned us. As Psalm 46 tells us, “be still, and know that (He is) God.” God keeps on creating the world, and as that happens, old structures are dismantled! Changes like that, are terrifying. In dark moments, in our times of shock, our faith saves us. Haven’t you heard people say, “What got me through those terrible times was my belief in God!”!
God helps us guard against our own weaknesses. When you feel like the end is near, you may be feeling the birth pangs of change. The King James Version translates verse nine of our gospel passage this way: “Take heed to yourselves.” Going to church helps you renew yourself spiritually. I remember the prayer and healing service at my church in New Jersey on September 11. One man in our congregation had barely escaped the Trade Center disaster, by deciding to play golf instead of going to work. All his co-workers were lost. Our pastor read and preached on Psalm 46 that night. The Word sustained this man and his family. Reverend Lloyd Ogilvie, Chaplain of the U.S. Senate, and a former member of Lehigh Presbytery, read Psalm 46 in the Senate chambers that day.
What lasts forever? The Word of God! Jesus promises to be with us to the end of the age. He is the cornerstone that never fails. As we enter the Advent season, be faithful, and pay attention. God will do something new.
Let us pray.
In this life, O God, bad things happen to us. When the temples of our lives start to crumble, help us to know that we will survive. We thank you for sending your Son, Jesus Christ, to lead us into your new reality of love, hope and justice. In His name we pray. AMEN
Carlos Wilton, Lectionary Preaching Workbook, Series VIII, Cycle B (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing, 2005), 277.
William Whiston, tr. The Works of Flavius Josephus (Edinburgh: Allman, 1826),3-4.
“The Temple,” in Paul J. Achtemeier, ed., Harper Collins Bible Dictionary (NY: Harper Collins, 1989), 1105.
Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 177.
David E. Leininger, “What the Future Holds,” in Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit: Year B (Lima, OH:CSS, 2003), 276.
Psalm 46: 10.
Douglas R. Hare, Mark (Nashville:Westminster John Knox, 1996), 170.
Jesus Christ is our God and King. That’s what “Christ the King” Sunday is for. This is the day in our church year when we can really celebrate the Lord we love. We can call Jesus our King, and we can do that by rocking the rafters with bluegrass music!
We think of kings as old-fashioned and European. They are characters in Walt Disney movies like “Beauty and the Beast.” In Jesus’ time, “King” was a very powerful political word. You can find the word, “king,” nine times in the reading from the gospel of John, that Eileen read for us. When Jesus tells Pontius Pilate that He is King of the Jews, He gets Himself into serious trouble. Pilate is threatened by this brilliant young rabbi. The chief priests and the scribes from the Jerusalem temple hate Jesus. They have reported to Pilate that Jesus wants to be King. If you were to say you were the king, or wanted to be king, in the Roman Empire, you were committing treason. The Jews of Jerusalem lived in a military dictatorship. There was no freedom of speech. A person who wanted to be King, might try to overthrow the Roman Emperor. Treason was punishable by death under Roman law.
Who is the real king in this story? Now, Jesus stands, trembling, before the representative of Imperial Rome. His people are the Jews. They are a captive nation, and they have no army. How can this weak, beaten prisoner be their king? He doesn’t look the part.
Pontius Pilate knows how a king is supposed to look and act. He’s the Roman Emperor’s right hand man in Judea. He’s backed up by a huge imperial army. Clearly, Pilate has all the political power, and Jesus has none. But read between the lines. Pilate sounds pretty uncomfortable here. He can see that this trial isn’t going the way he wants it to go.
The courtroom drama goes on. Pilate looks at this whipped and bleeding peasant. He asks Him, “Are you king?” And Jesus calmly replies, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Now the tables are turning. Jesus speaks with authority.
Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. My kingdom is not like any you have ever seen before.” This is a brilliant answer. Jesus is saying YES and NO. Yes, that He is a king. And He is saying NO, to the Roman idea of kingship. Pilate is becoming the defendant, and Jesus is turning out to be the judge. Jesus will be crucified, but Pilate is still losing and Jesus is winning. Pilate is asking Jesus, “Are you a king? What have you done? Where are you from?” By the end of this scene, we know the answers. Jesus is King. He is not A king! He is THE king! His kingdom is the kingdom of God. His purpose is not to call attention to Himself, but to show who God is.
Christians have struggled for two thousand years to understand what it means for Jesus to be our King of Kings. The image of Christ as King is a good one, as long as it’s not the only way we talk about Jesus. When we call Him King, we have to be careful to understand what we mean. We’re using the word, “King,” to describe something we don’t have words for.
Our world has seen strong servant kings---kings who had political power, too. During World War II, the City of London was heavily bombed by the German Luftwaffe. Most people who could afford to leave the city, left during that terrifying time. At the very least, they sent their children to the country. Buckingham Palace, the home of King George the Sixth and Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain, was hit by bombs several times. The royal family was inches away from death. The palace staff made secret plans to send the King and Queen and their two young daughters to Canada. But the family chose to remain in London. The Queen said, “The girls will never leave without me, I will never leave without the King, and the King will never leave.”
Shortly after the Battle of Britain, King George toured a bombed-out neighborhood near the Palace. As the royal family walked through the rubble, an elderly man said, “My king, you are here in the middle of this. You are indeed a GOOD king.” There were thousands of workers who had to stay in the line of fire—because they needed their jobs in the city. King George was a good Christian. He made a risky decision. He let go of his right to be protected. He walked among his people. This king was ready to take the hits from the Germans along with the English working class. His presence was a comfort. A good king doesn’t leave his people during a crisis. In the gospels, Jesus is that kind of king. He gives His life for His people.
King Christian the Tenth of Denmark was a servant leader, also. When his country was occupied by Hitler’s forces during World War II, the Nazis ordered the Jews to identify themselves by wearing yellow stars of David. King Christian said that one Danish person was the same as the next one. So the King put on a Star of David, and expected all the people of Denmark to do the same. The next day in Copenhagen, almost the entire population wore the Star of David. It was impossible for the Nazis to pick out the Jews. That’s how the Danes saved ninety percent of their Jewish population from the concentration camps. King Christian put his own life on the line by wearing the Jewish star. Jesus was THAT kind of king.
In Luke’s Gospel, Pilate lets Jesus be crucified with the words, “King of the Jews,” posted over His head. Pilate is mocking the Jews and Jesus. And yet, Jesus was and is a king. And His story ends in triumph.
Jesus comforts us at our most terrifying times. He is a king who talks more about loving enemies than about conquering them. He is a king who teaches women the Torah and eats dinner with tax collectors. He is a king who calls us to obey our God, even unto death. Jesus is a very difficult king to follow. My question for you is, “Will you let this King be the Lord of your life?”
Almighty God, show us what it means for Christ to be our King. Give us faith, so we will live lives that honor Him, as we await His return to us. We pray in the name of Christ, our Savior, our Friend, our King. AMEN.
Of all the creatures on earth, humans are the only ones that worry. You name it, we worry about it. Parents worry about children. Children worry about parents. We worry about how we look. We worry about our jobs. We worry about our money, our health, our families, the weather, and our travel plans. More people travel over the Thanksgiving holiday than any other time. We worry about our safety. We worry about delays in big airports. We worry about long-term parking. We worry ourselves to death.
I admit to being a worrier. It comes with being a perfectionist. And it comes with caring about how other people feel! I still worry about silly things, like being sure my shoes match my purse. And I worry about bigger things. Will I get my sermons done? Will I inspire you and give you hope? Will I be able to practice what I preach? Will I be able to help those of you who are worried?
The pressures of modern life have a powerful effect on us. They eat away at our minds and our bodies. When we let our personal worries get out of control, we forget that we have less to worry about than many people. Hundreds of children, right here in Lehigh County, have no homes. They have no turkeys or cranberry sauce or mashed potatoes to eat for Thanksgiving dinner.
We put huge amounts of time and energy into worrying about things that never actually come to pass. We call it being prepared, and we call it contingency planning, but it’s still worry and it’s still needless. At the end of his 75-year lifespan, Mark Twain said, “I am an old man, and I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”
“Do not be anxious” is a very different message from, “Give no concern.” The Greek word, merimnan, here translated as “worry,” means, “to worry anxiously.” In today’s gospel text, Jesus doesn’t say that concern about our survival, or concerns for others, are shameful. He isn’t advocating a reckless attitude. Jesus wants to free us from stressing out about trivial things. For me, the social rules women have been taught to live by, like not wearing white shoes after Labor Day, are silly! Or the craziness of trying to do all our Christmas shopping to the hours between 3 and 9 a.m. on Friday. It’s good marketing psychology. It plays on our fear of not having enough money or time to do Christmas shopping. But Black Friday creates more worry than it relieves. I know a lot of people who map out the stores they will go to at 3 and 4:30 and five a.m. They have already decided, by Thanksgiving Eve, what departments of Best Buy and J.C. Penney they will run to. In recent years, we have had a new worry, “Will I be trampled?” Last year at Target I saw shopping carts being pushed at thirty miles an hour at two o’clock a.m. It was like the Indy 500. That was my first and last Black Friday.
We can treat Christmas shopping as a game and have a good time. We can worry about it and skip our sleep tomorrow night and score a dozen bargains. We can stay away from the Mall until January. We go into the big stores only on Wednesday mornings through December. We have many choices, above and beyond the options newspaper ads offer us.
Jesus--whose birth this fuss is all about-- offers the gift of hope. He tells us what is important to God and offers to lift our burden of worry. Jesus knew His audience. Those people who sat on the Judean hillside, listening to Him preach the Sermon on the Mount—they were worriers like us. Jesus wants us to free us, to enjoy the good life. He says, “Look at all the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”
Our lives are more than the sum of our accomplishments. This is the gospel lesson for today. Life is short, but we are not alone. What Jesus is calling for, is for us to trust God. We need not fuss and toss and turn in the night. God, in His grace, provides what we need to stay alive. Jesus reminds us that plants and animals don’t worry about their work. And if they don’t worry, Jesus says, why should human beings worry and shorten our lives? If God tends to the birds and the flowers and the grass, then God will care for the highest in creation—and that is you and me. Because God is good, we are free to seek God’s kingdom here on earth. And being with those we love, and showing our thanks, will help to accomplish that.
The lilies of the field neither labor nor spin. For a few days, they are beautiful as God made them. And Jesus asks the people on the hillside, “Will God not clothe you, O you of little faith?” He’s saying that clothes don’t make the man or woman. We have to dress; we are not Adam or Eve. But what we put on, whether our shoes match our jackets, whether our socks match our ties, or whether our coat or shirt has a designer label, makes no difference to God.
As Jesus says, worry doesn’t add an hour to our lives. On the contrary! Thousands die every year because they worry themselves into an early grave. Anxiety takes away from the quality of life. If you are worried, you can’t be giving thanks.
Jesus’ message is this: “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” “Strive” means to exert a lot of energy and effort toward a goal. Have you ever noticed that, when you have important things to do, your anxieties fade away?
We will always worry. We are wired to respond to stress with an increase in adrenalin in our bloodstreams. We can’t love someone without worrying about his or her safety. We cannot be sensitive without feeling concerned that we have hurt somebody, or pushed them too hard, or ignored their needs. We can’t listen to the news without feeling alarmed about the world.
In an interview with Edward Hallowell, M.D., in Psychology Today magazine, the psychologist said that he advises his patients to develop a spiritual life. According to Dr. Hallowell, Brain scans and EEG monitors show beneficial changes in the brain during prayer. “Spirituality is a powerful part of the mind,” Hallowell said.
Which do you remember more fondly, your happy Thanksgivings of your childhood, over the river and through the woods--- or the results of your all-night shopping last year? Trust in God’s providence. Let the words of Jesus fill your soul. Live your life to give thanks.
Let us pray.
We thank you, God, for blessings in abundance. We thank you for the sound of laughter and the touch of love, for brand new mornings. May we come into your presence with thanksgiving, and sing your praises, this day and every day! Amen.
Eric Foner and John Garraty, eds. The Reader’s Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991),1090.
Matthew 6:25, as interpreted in William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1975) ,255.
Edward H. Hallowell, “Fighting Life’s Ifs,” Psychology Today, November-December 1997.
I Thessalonians 3:9-13.
Do you notice something new today? We have Advent colors in the sanctuary. For most of the summer and fall, you’ve seen green cloths, or paraments, on the pulpit and the Communion table. Purple and blue are the colors of Advent. The Advent candles are blue, and the paraments are purple. When the twelve days of Christmas start on December 24, we’ll put out the white paraments again. White is the color of Christmas and Easter.
The Christmas season doesn’t start in the Christian church until the Christmas Eve. Are you surprised? We don’t follow the timetable of the stores, and they don’t follow ours. You might say that we Presbyterians are countercultural. Stores have been selling Santas and reindeer since before Election Day. Halloween costumes were on sale in late July. Valentines will be displayed the day after Christmas, I’m sure. Merchants aren’t good at waiting, but we in the church believe waiting is a good thing. The birth of Jesus is more joyful if we have given ourselves time to prepare. God calls us to grow lives deep and rich in love during the month of Advent.
On Thanksgiving Day, a couple of years ago, my family saw a low-budget television advertisement. A man in a Santa Claus suit was yelling at the top of his lungs about a product that could wipe out laundry lint forever. It was so funny, we laughed out loud! A prophet of doom in a Santa suit, urging us to stamp out lint. He reminded me of a modern John the Baptist. My dad and I had a good laugh over this silly ad. It turned out to be the last Christmas of my father’s life. I never watch television, and I almost didn’t sit with him that day. But as I look back on it now, I’m glad I left the dirty dishes in the sink and laughed at that television Santa on Thanksgiving Day with my father. It was a time of love.
The Apostle Paul sends an encouraging letter to the Thessalonians, in northern Greece. The Christians of this seaport city can’t wait for Paul to go back and visit them. Carol just read us a passage from Paul’s first letter, which is the oldest piece of writing in the New Testament, even older than the gospels. Paul’s letters don’t tell stories, like Matthew, Mark, Luke and John do. But you can read between the lines and find a story in each letter he writes. This one, in particular, is highly emotional. Paul has moved on to start a church somewhere in the Mediterranean region. But we can hear how he misses his friends, back in the Greek seaside port of Thessalonika.
The letter is a wake-up call for that congregation. Paul assures them of the Second Coming of Jesus. Christians couldn’t wait for the judgment day. If it really happened, as Paul predicted, life would get a lot better, fast! The Thessalonian Christians, who had been the poorest people in their city, would rise in prestige to become leaders—or so they thought. The last would be the first, with the arrival of Christ. Their beloved relatives who had left this world would return, with hugs and kisses for the living. All of them were breathlessly excited! Wouldn’t you be? In his letter, Paul prays that God would "strengthen their hearts in holiness that (they) may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."
When Paul wrote this letter, he was excited, too. He spoke for his fellow disciples, Silvanus and Timothy, when he wrote: "Night and day, we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith. Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you."
I like this book of the Bible because it is wall-to-wall encouragement. Paul dearly loved this little church. It was a small congregation in a crowded inner city where many ethnic groups lived together. With too little money and a great deal of faith, they had survived. In the letter, Paul shows his delight that this colony of believers responded so well to his stories of Jesus. The gospels weren’t written yet, remember—he had to tell them. He was a remarkable man. Remember, he walked all around the Middle East on foot. He had no luggage for carrying scrolls. Paul’s entire Bible was in his head.
The word has gotten back to Paul that the Thessalonians are being persecuted for their faith. Although they have persevered, these people are terrified. The church leaders believe Jesus will come back. But a few have started to wonder if they will live to see that day. The pagan gods are winning back their young folks, and a few of them are rebelling. They don’t want to risk execution for Jesus if He’s never going to show up. What are they to do? Paul longs to encourage them in their faith once more—in person. He hates being separated from these new Christians he has loved so much. Paul hopes that God will clear the way for him to return. Paul writes to them in the tone of an understanding parent. We can relate to Paul’s sadness. We know how hard it is to encourage loved ones when they are far away from us. Our children who live in different time zones, our aging parents whose health is failing, in faraway places—we miss them during the holidays.
Advent and Lent are the traditional times to focus on our need for God. In the gospel reading from Luke, Jesus predicts that the signs will be clear when He returns. To sinners, the arrival of Jesus will bring fear and trembling. For the faithful, it will be a time to rejoice. Good Christians will be able to hold their heads high. The light of the world is coming. We have no idea when! But, in the meantime, we can’t be tied down by worries. We have plenty to do.
What does a Christian do, during Advent? It’s like waiting for a houseguest to arrive. We spend a lot of time getting ready for the celebration. We don’t just sit around the house waiting. We clean house! We get the towels ready and wash the bedclothes. We dust and throw out the trash. We drive and shop and wrap and stamp and mail. We trim the tree. We think “mission,” here in the church. See the Mitten Patch, and see how full it is already. Think of the gently-used coats we’ve collected for the Caring Place. At our busiest time in our personal lives, we are serving Him.
We aren’t trying to escape execution, like the Thessalonian Christians were. Thanks be to God! But during Advent, everybody is waiting for something. Christians hunger for God’s most extravagant gift: Jesus. As we prepare to sing, “Joy to the World,” hundreds of people in the Lehigh Valley, wait for someone to fill their emptiness. We can bring Jesus to them. We can feed the hungry, care for the sick, and help the poor. The neediest people were first in Jesus’ heart. One of the key words in Paul’s letter is the word “presence,” ending with “c e.” Let’s give lonely people a merry Christmas. Presents, ending with a “t s,” and presence, ending with “c e.” The coming of Christ is at hand! Let’s get ready!
Let us pray.
Almighty God, we thank you for the opportunity of this season. We are excited. We love the customs of Advent. Encourage us and strengthen us in holiness, we pray. Send your Holy Spirit so we may abound in love for the arrival of Christ. In His name, AMEN.
Marion Soards and others, eds. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 24.
I Thessalonians 3:13.
I Thessalonians 3:10-11.
I Thessalonians 3:9.
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