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November 2010 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Ordinary Folks" — November 7
"Endings and Beginnings"
— November 14
"Jesus: the Fullness of God"
— November 21
"Touched by God" — November 24
"How Do You Get Ready for God?" — November 28

“Ordinary Folks”
November 7, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 6:20-31

When the movie, “Snow White,” was being made in 1937, Walt Disney and his animators worked two hundred and forty days on a four-minute sequence that later ended up on the cutting room floor. In the scene that was cut, the dwarfs made soup for Snow White and nearly destroyed the kitchen in the process. Disney thought the sequence was very funny. But he ended up taking it out of the film because it interrupted the story line.1 Most people would say that Disney had wasted the time and energy of his animators. Two hundred and forty days, and all that creativity, down the drain!

But we can look back, seventy-three years later, and see that Disney made good choices about what stayed and what had to go from his film. He made another wise choice. Remember the wicked queen with the long fingernails? She had first been drawn as fat and pudgy. But Disney told his animators to make her beautiful for the final version of the film. You’ll remember her as the tall, thin woman with the crown, who turns herself into a witch to give “Snow White” the poisoned apple. I think the wicked queen’s beauty made her more scary. The pudgy woman from Disney’s drawing board ended up as one of the good fairies in “Cinderella.”

“Snow White” was the first animated feature film produced in America. It is one of the most beloved movies of all time. Walt Disney stayed true to his vision of the finished film. He didn’t care what the rest of the world thought or said--including his own family. Disney’s wife, Lillian, had predicted, “No one’s ever going to pay a dime to see a dwarf picture!” How wrong she was!

Good leaders make tough decisions and take the heat for them. Jesus made a huge decision at the beginning of His ministry. He chose twelve ordinary fishermen to serve as His apostles. He wanted them to be the starting point for God’s new Israel. Would any of US have picked these rough, uneducated men to be Jesus’ first disciples? Probably not! We can be sure the scribes and Pharisees looked down on these fishermen. But that didn’t matter to Jesus. He was guided by God alone. Just before meeting these fishermen, Jesus had spent the night on a mountain praying. When He came down, Jesus gathered His followers around Him. Then the thirteen men stood at "a level place" where a throng of people began to gather. After He cured the people in the crowd with unclean spirits, Jesus began preaching the Sermon on the Plain.

The sixth chapter of the gospel of Luke tells this story. Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain is full of familiar quotations for Christian living. Crowds of ordinary people heard this sermon, along with the apostles. Jesus surely meant for Peter, John and Andrew and friends to take it to heart.

The beatitudes in the gospel of Luke aren’t the ones we know best. The most famous list is found in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew’s gospel. The Sermon on the Plain has the shorter version of the beatitudes. With this list, Jesus seems to turn the world’s values upside-down. He blesses people whom the world calls accursed, and preaches woe on people whom the world admires.

Scholars think the beatitudes in the gospels of Matthew and Luke came from the same ancient source, but that source is lost to us today. I think they’re different for one simple reason—Jesus preached the same sermon many times in different words, in several different places—the same way pastors recycle their sermons today. We tend to like Matthew’s version of the beatitudes better. Matthew gives more blessings. Jesus doesn’t talk about woes in Matthew’s version. Luke’s Jesus, on the other hand, is confrontational. He isn’t afraid to speak truth to power. Luke’s Jesus blesses people the world has cursed. He curses people the world has blessed. The coming of the reign of God will bring down the rich and the powerful, Jesus says. The wealthy people of this world have been given much—but they won’t be given much more. Not only will the hungry be fed, but the well-fed will learn what it is to be hungry. The coming kingdom will turn the world upside down—or, maybe, right side up!

But don’t we live in the land of opportunity? Is it wrong to be rich? Is it sinful to be successful? What’s Jesus got against laughter? I think He is exaggerating, like the ancient rabbis did, in order to make a point. And don’t forget He’s speaking to poor people, to offer them hope.

When Jesus came to earth, the kingdom of heaven came among us too. Yet, the kingdom of this world was, and is, very powerful in every human life. It exerts so much pressure on us. We work hard to be beautiful and strong, and to look young. We’re extravagant and competitive in what we buy. Imagine spending four thousand dollars on a handbag! Imagine paying ten thousand dollars to have a custom-decorated wedding cake flown from coast to coast. A cake is only a cake. A handbag is only a handbag. Think of how many cans of ravioli the Food Pantry could buy with fourteen thousand dollars.

Jesus isn’t saying we ought to give up our savings, our homes, or the people and simple pleasures we enjoy. We can celebrate these things as God’s good gifts. But we can’t allow them to push God out of our lives. Remember the line from the old hymn, “rich in things and poor in soul”? Wealth and pleasure fade away. Sometimes they become destructive.

How can we find true blessedness? So much depends on where we place our trust. It is only when we come to understand, both how much we have, and how little, that we are ready to turn to Jesus at last. It’s dangerous to depend on the wealth of this world to bring us eternal joy. If we’re afraid of losing our luxuries, we give them too much importance. And here’s an even more dangerous possibility—what if we start to trust in our accumulated stuff, or worse yet, what if we start to trust in ourselves, alone, to find happiness, instead of trusting in God?

Walt Disney cut the kitchen scene from “Snow White” because he knew that “less is more.” As we start planning for the holidays, we would do well to remember that “less is more.” It’s tempting to get on the bandwagon and buy the latest things at amazing prices, at Best Buy in the middle of the night on Black Friday. I’m not a techie. It took me five years to get on Facebook. I don’t have a Smart Phone or an Ipod or a Kindle. I don’t want them. I have never wanted a Palm Pilot, even though my friends are shocked that I still use paper calendars. I’m not sure I even want to have a cell phone! One of my seminary professors doesn’t use a computer at all. He writes his books on legal pads and hires a secretary to type them. He has a simple life and he’s very happy.

There’s hope in the Sermon on the Plain for us folks who want to simplify our lives. Here’s the gist of Jesus’ message. Trust in God, who has a plan for each of us. Even the greatest of catastrophes in our lives may end up saving us. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep,” He’s saying that God is in charge of this world, and that God isn’t finished with us yet. If we have faith, God may bless us with what we want. Or, just as likely, God may bless us with what we DON’T want. Counting our blessings is important. But there’s something even more important for Christians — having the blessing that counts — God’s blessing. God’s love follows us in wealth and poverty, in health and sickness, and in laughter and tears. God blesses us ordinary folks, so we can be a blessing to others.

Lord, we give you thanks for blessings—and for the things we fear, that sometimes turn out to be blessings in disguise. Help us to trust you more fully than we do. Help us to live in faith, knowing that—both in this life and the next, you are watching over us, providing for us, and caring for us. AMEN

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs film, quoted by Janice Hearn in, 2002.

Luke 6:13.

Craig A. Evans, New International Bible Commentary: Luke. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 112.

“God of Grace and God of Glory,” a traditional hymn, with lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Donald Capps, Ph.D., Princeton Theological Seminary, Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Care.

“Endings and Beginnings”
November 14, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Isaiah 65:17-25
Luke 21:5-19

I’ve heard that the most dangerous times during an airplane flight are takeoff and landing. Here are some funny lines a flight attendant once added to her pre-takeoff safety lecture. She hoped it would get the passengers to lighten up. It worked!

  • Your seat cushions can be used for flotation, and in the event of an emergency water landing, please take them with our compliments.

  • Smoking in the lavatories is prohibited. Any person caught smoking in the lavatories will be asked to leave the plane immediately.

  • As you exit the plane, please make sure to gather all of your belongings. Anything left behind will be distributed evenly among the flight attendants. Please do not leave children or spouses.

I don’t get rattled at takeoff, but a lot of people do. They don’t want to fly because they hate to feel helplessly strapped inside a jet. If you want your next takeoff to feel more like an adventure, watch a child in a window seat. Children get so excited about seeing houses and rivers and swimming pools from the air. Sitting next to children in planes is just what we need to put our fears into perspective. Humor helps, too.

Life’s endings and beginnings are risky. Healthy survival depends on two things: faith in God and your frame of mind. If you can get in touch with your own inner child, flying becomes fun. Adapting to change is a lot like flying to another time zone. You can make the best of it, or you can get bogged down with annoyances, like jet lag and earaches. You need to ask yourself: “Will I view this experience as an opportunity?”

Today’s Old Testament reading from Isaiah doesn’t seem to fit with the gospel lesson from Luke. But they have one thing in common. They’re about endings and beginnings. The Isaiah reading predicts the beginning of the best of times. Luke’s is about the coming of the worst of times. The world we live in is not what we would like it to be. We go back and forth, between despair and hope, just like these people of the Bible did.

Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, Isaiah’s people were stuck in the past. For sixty years, the leaders of Israel had been in exile in Babylon. The new generation had, literally, walked back to the city of Jerusalem after Cyrus the Great released them from captivity. But their capital city was a burnt-out shell of what it once had been. How could they rebuild the temple to its former splendor?

Isaiah’s prophecy offers hope to these people. God is in control, he assures them. The Israelites, who have had their very lives taken from them, will get them back. Isaiah repeats the words, “No more!” No more will there be sorrow in the land. He doesn’t just hope for a new heaven and a new earth. God will make a way, where there seems to be no way, Isaiah promises.

Our Gospel lesson is set in Jerusalem, five centuries later. The time is only two days before Jesus’ arrest. In keeping with the tradition of His people, Jesus and His disciples have made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for Passover. The temple is the center of holiday worship. In Jesus’ time, the temple is the showplace of the ancient world. It’s the symbol of Jewish unity. At Passover, the ancient Jerusalem temple was even busier than the Lehigh Valley Mall will be on the day after Thanksgiving. People thought the Jerusalem temple would last forever. You’ll remember that everyone thought this was true about the Titanic and the World Trade Center, too.

As the disciples stand outside the entrance of the temple, watching people coming and going, Jesus overhears someone admiring the building. Abruptly, He remarks, “As for these things that you see, they days will come when not one stone will be left upon another. All will be thrown down!” Shocked at His prediction, the disciples ask Jesus, “When will this be?” Jesus proceeds to describe the attack on the temple that would take place some forty years later. Then, He tells His followers how to live in the face of the dangers that lie ahead. Would these men be ready? Only time would tell.

When we say “yes” to Jesus’ call, we accept risks. For the followers of Jesus who lived during the first century, becoming a Christian meant persecution, arrest, prison, even death. If we are to embrace Jesus’ values, we will need courage. Without faith in God, we are lost. God will do the mighty acts we can’t do for ourselves.

The city of Allentown is filled with once-beautiful churches, now boarded up. Stores and schools built during your lifetimes have been demolished. Since we moved here, I’ve heard many stories about the Hess’ Department Store in downtown Allentown that is no more—especially, the flower shows. Everyone misses that store. Macy’s simply can’t compare. There is a website that lists hundreds of shopping malls and department stores that no longer exist. This fascinating internet site can be found at

Even worse than the decay of beloved churches and stores, is the moral wreckage of our society. Every day we read or hear something that horrifies us. Did you hear about the child prostitution rings that were shut down by the FBI last week? The good news is that ninety-six children have been freed for a better life. Our God is a God who brings life out of death.

God has given us many choices. The first choice we make is whether or not we will actually live out our faith. It’s one thing to say every Sunday morning, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,” and quite another thing to live the words of the Apostles’ Creed. The creed became a way of life for the disciples. They had left their families and their professions to follow a carpenter from Nazareth. Their faith kept them going. The best of these men, Peter, James and John, learned to embrace change as opportunity. What did the disciples get for their trouble? They experienced physical abuse and emotional abandonment. Some of them died martyrs’ deaths. We won’t be martyred like they were, but we have to admit that Christianity lacks the power it once had.

If we choose to follow Jesus, the second choice is this: will we be able to see, and act on, the possibilities in our lives? After warning the disciples of the persecution they will suffer, Jesus says: “This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds.” Christianity is still alive, and our church is doing fine. Many churches are not. Our own church struggles with building expenses. The congregation struggles with health, our jobs or lack of them, family conflict, money, and, yes, even faith. A baptism is a joyful beginning and an opportunity for our entire congregation. Lillian Renae and her future Sunday School classmates need to know Jesus Christ. How will Presbyterians proclaim our faith to the next generation?

Beginnings and endings are so hard. Isaiah, speaking in the voice of God, offers comfort. He says, ‘Before they call, I will answer, while they are speaking, I will hear.” Jesus’ promise to the disciples still stands: “By your endurance, you will gain your souls!” How much more reassurance do we need, than that?

We have fallen temples all around us. The nights get darker and darker. But I am reminded of another place, a fateful night in the little town of Bethlehem. Suddenly, I hear an angel in the darkness, saying: “Do not be afraid…for I am bringing you good news of great joy…to you this day is born a Savior.”

Let us pray. O God, we trust that you will do something fresh and new among us. We will be ready for opportunities as they come. But we need you to give us the courage to live into every challenge. Help us, we pray, to take up residence in your new earth and to prepare our children for it. AMEN

Isaiah 65: 19-20.

Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press, 1993), 246.

Luke 21:5.
Luke 21:7.

The Apostles’ Creed
Luke 21:13-14.
Isaiah 65:24.
Luke 21:19.
Luke 2:10-11.

“Jesus: the Fullness of God”
November 21, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Colossians 1:11-20

Whom, or what, do you allow to rule your life? Our scripture reading from Colossians gives a strong answer to that question: Christ is in charge! The Apostle Paul doesn’t write, “Christ should be in charge.” Instead, he writes, “Christ IS in charge!”

Powerful forces push us around. Sometimes, they seem beyond our control. And sometimes, they are! But Jesus came to earth, to take on these powers for us. He is in control. We think of our salvation in the future — but God has already acted for us! His Son, Jesus Christ, is King, and we are free.

The Colossian congregation lived in Asia Minor, which is now Turkey. In Paul’s time, Caesar was considered the king of the world. The Roman Empire was the superpower, not just in the city of Colossae, but all around the Mediterranean. Paul was in a Roman jail then. Roman soldiers seemed to rule his life, too. And yet, Paul lived as if his whole life were a prayer of thanksgiving to God.

What are the powers of darkness that seem to enslave us today? Too much to do, in too little time. Difficult people. The bad economy. Bureaucracy. Taxation. Illness. Aging. Death. But, thanks be to God, Jesus Christ is Lord of all! Paul writes, “In Him, all things hold together.”

You may not have read Paul’s letter to the Colossians. It’s full of good news, just like the Bible in general, but it takes some effort to understand. The letter to the Colossians is one long sentence in Greek. There’s no punctuation in the original Greek at all. It’s written entirely in upper case, and there are no breaks between words. Our confirmation class tried to decipher a sentence like that, at our first meeting. It was hard enough for us to read in English! The common people of Colossae didn’t read Greek, anyway. So Paul’s letter would have been preached or read to the whole Colossian congregation, not read by them. He had never met the people of that church, but he had heard through the grapevine that they were being tempted to stray from their faith.

Many people believe that nothing is more important than making it to the top of the success ladder. Ancient Colossian people had greedy and aggressive tendencies, just like people do today, and Paul had heard about that. The Colossians were meeting pagan philosophers who were saying things like: “We love God, and we do as we please!” The Colossians were tempted to go along, to get along. In the letter, Paul challenges the Colossians to remain a worshipping Christian congregation. Paul tells them three things about Jesus—who He is, where we can find Him, and the meaning of His kingship for the future.

Colossae was a cosmopolitan city. Hundreds of people, from every walk of life, were entering and leaving that city every day. Merchants, sailors, travelers, and pagans crowded the roads. Paul knew that Colossian children had been tempted by popular pagan ideas. Young people in that congregation were making foolish decisions that might jeopardize their future.

Paul’s letter is a warning to the Colossians, as well as a proclamation of good news. He opens by giving thanks that there is a church in Colossae in the first place. Christ Jesus had already delivered them from the forces that seemed to threaten their faith. Stay loyal to Jesus, Paul tells the Colossian congregation. As Paul writes, “Jesus has rescued us from the powers of darkness.” Here’s a modern translation of that same sentence: “Jesus got us out of the pit we were in, and got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep on repeating.” Paul doesn’t say we WILL be rescued. We ARE rescued! he writes. We have the rest of our lives to live in freedom. The children of Israel had been brought out of slavery in Egypt. They had been delivered as a free people, Paul writes. In the same way, people everywhere have been rescued from the powers of darkness into the kingdom of Christ, by the preaching of the Gospel.

One great Christian leader in our own country ALMOST made a foolish decision and lost her freedom in Christ. But her faith saved her. In 1827, Sojourner Truth, one of the great abolitionists and fighters for women’s rights, ran away from slavery and fled to New York City. She had served a household in New Paltz, New York, from the time she was thirteen years old. But her life of freedom wasn’t quite what she had expected it to be. Sojourner found it difficult and lonely. She began to miss her friends who were still slaves on the plantation. She wanted to be with her five children, all of whom had been sold to families upstate. At one point, Sojourner Truth was so lonely that she nearly went back to slavery. She prepared to turn herself in, back in New Paltz.

But before Sojourner Truth returned to slavery, God appeared to her in a vision, according to her autobiography. God reminded her that Jesus was in charge, and not her former owners. Her dream saved her. That heavenly message kept her from making a foolish mistake. She remained free and later wandered the East Coast as an evangelist and organizer.

Christ wasn’t afraid to challenge the powers and principalities because He was King. “Jesus has first place in everything,” Paul writes. He is not one power among many. He is THE power in our lives. What does Christ’s kind of kingship mean to us? In our American democracy, we may feel uneasy about a king ruling over us, even if it is Jesus. But Paul presents a different image of kingship. He reverses the roles of king and servant. Jesus is a lamb, not a lion. Instead of ruling as master of the world, Jesus serves the people around Him. He is the king who was ridiculed, scorned, and mocked. With His death and resurrection, Jesus has rescued us from the powers of darkness. One day, the whole world will be His kingdom.

When the powers and principalities threaten us again and again, can we live in the light of Christ’s victory? It’s not easy to lift high the cross in this world. But the scriptures remind us, “Christ is fully God!” Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm that Jesus Christ is our Lord. The powers that try push us around and deplete our faith, are not Lord.

Every time we say a blessing at the table, we tell the world that our food is a gift of God, not a tribute to our achievements. When we take Communion, we celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ. When we baptize a child, as we have baptized Alexis Kimberly this morning, we witness God’s blessing on our congregation. Every baptism begins a new life in Christ.

In the words of Paul, we can “endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father!” In Christ, Paul writes, all things began. In Christ, all things will be fulfilled. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we affirm that Jesus is our King---not the bullies on the playground. Not the economic downturn. Not our SAT scores. Not our MRI results. Not the difficult people at the office. And not death or taxation.

Let’s go out and tell the world!

Let us pray. Lord, help us to remember that you are King over all things. Free us from the powers that try to dominate us and put Jesus in the background. Reorder our lives, we pray. Fill us with your wisdom, so we will live as people who know who sits upon the throne. AMEN

Colossians 1:17.

“Colossae,” in David Noel Freedman, Eerdman Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 270.

Colossians 1:3.
Colossians 1:13.

Eugene H. Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, CO: Navpress, 2003, 2144.

Sojourner Truth, The Narrative of Sojourner Truth (Boston: J. B. Yerrington and Son, 1850), 65-68.

David W. Blight, “Sojourner Truth,” in Eric Foner, The Reader's Companion to American History. ed. with John A. Garraty (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. 1991), 1086-7.

Colossians 1:18.
Colossians 1:19.
Colossians 1:11-12.


“Touched by God”
November 24, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Luke 17:11-19

This is my favorite Thanksgiving Bible story. It has a sad beginning, but a happy ending. Jesus is on his way from Galilee to Jerusalem with His disciples. On the road, He meets ten men who are walking together. Each man suffers from leprosy.

People of Jesus’ time lived in dread of leprosy, a term that was used to describe almost any skin rash that looked like it was getting worse. Everyone thought skin lesions were radically contagious. Socially, lepers were the lowest of the low. People who were believed to have leprosy lived on the outskirts of every town. They depended on charity to survive. Most of the time, they banded together to become communities of total misery.

These ten men in the story are thought to be unclean. That doesn’t mean they haven’t showered. It means they are socially untouchable. No Jew is permitted to have anything to do with them, not even their family members. This story takes places on the border between Judah and Samaria. Nine of the lepers are Jews, and the tenth is a Samaritan. Because Jesus is a rabbi, He is forbidden by Old Testament law to have any contact with lepers. He can’t go near them, or even look at them. A rabbi who becomes unclean, by associating with lepers, might as well quit his job.

“Jesus, Master, have mercy on us,” the lepers call. Jesus sees them. He recognizes their need and stops to speak with them. Jesus is probably the only person who has spoken to these men in years.

He says to the ten, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Why does He say this? The priests are the only ones who can certify that a person’s leprosy is gone. After they have passed the priest’s test, these men will be able to return to their families and find work again.

As all ten men make their way down the road to the priests, they are healed. Nine of them keep walking toward the temple, as Jesus has instructed them. But the tenth man stops in His tracks as soon as his skin clears up. Immediately, he turns back to find Jesus. Then he falls at Jesus’ feet and thanks Him. This is the action that matters most in this story—not Jesus’ healing of these men, but the Samaritan’s response to God’s grace.

Then Jesus says, to the man at his feet, “Get up and go on your way: your faith has made you well.” Here’s the twist in this story: because the people of Judea hate Samaritans, the grateful leper has had two strikes against him for many years—his disease and his nationality. Jesus responds by giving the Samaritan a double dose of salvation.

There’s a lot more going on in this story than gratitude. The priests in the temple have great power over lepers. They decide who’s allowed to go back to the community, and who isn’t. Life wasn’t any fairer then, than it is today. If we had been hearing this story at the time it was written, we would have realized right away that when Jesus sends the men to the temple to be declared clean, only nine of them will be able to go back to the Jewish community. In the sight of these priests, all men are not created equal. The Samaritan is set free from his disease, but he’s still considered unclean because of his nationality. And Jesus has caused a stir among the crowds, by healing this double outcast.

Samaritans were not accepted as “real” Jews. Jews were expected by law to give thanks to God. And yet, this Samaritan is the only one of the ten who goes back to thank Jesus. The Samaritan isn’t necessarily a better person than the other nine—nor is he worse. But he is the only healed leper who responds to God’s grace with gratitude.

If Jesus is willing to heal a leper who is also a Samaritan, is there anything Jesus will not do for us? Is there anyone whom He will not love? Is there any barrier Jesus can’t overcome?

God is merciful to us every day, in large and small ways. Every day, some lovely, unexpected thing happens—if only we would notice. As we get older, God’s grace continues to surprise and delight us. Every day, we have one or two great joys and even more small joys. Great joys like seeing our out-of-town children at Thanksgiving. Small joys, like having a car repair take only a half hour.

When you pray, are you more likely to make requests of God before you think of praising? Many Christians think of faith as a matter of cause and effect. You pray for something, and it either does or doesn’t happen. On that basis, you decide if you will believe in God.

Has God answered your prayers? Maybe not in the way you hoped He would, but we still have bread on the table and a roof over our heads. If you haven’t seen any answers to your prayers yet, it doesn’t mean your prayer wasn’t good enough. And if you do get an answer, don’t assume you’re entitled to that answer. Prayer is more complicated than that. God chooses the blessings God gives us, in God’s own time—not ours.

To have faith is not only to pray, but to express our gratitude to God around the clock. Faith isn’t just something we think or feel. It’s something we do.

“Your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells the Samaritan. Research shows that giving thanks, in prayer to God, enhances your health. It’s a proven fact that people who thank God for blessings are healthier in body, mind and spirit. Gratitude is a stress reducer. Scientific evidence shows that there are links between our giving thanks and the health of our immune system.

Thankfulness can change the life of a congregation. When we practice gratitude, we come to church not just to get something out of it, but to thank God for the blessings we have received. If we have this mind-set, stewardship seems more like joyful giving than fund-raising. Even the mission of the church feels more like the work of grateful hands and hearts, and less like a solemn duty that we check off our “to-do” list.

Have you praised God today? As we go our way, let us rejoice and give thanks. For in giving thanks in all things, we find that God, indeed, is in all things.

Let us pray. Almighty God, whose love endures forever, whose faithfulness is to all generations, we turn to you as your grateful people. We give thanks for the gifts of this past year, for all that has given us life, for all that has brought joy, for all sources of comfort, healing and peace.

We remember those who have shown us your love, whose faces reflect your image, whose actions have given us a glimpse of your work among us. We lift up those who have shown forgiveness, whose words have encouraged, whose strength has made us stronger, whose service has inspired us to serve others. In Jesus’ name, AMEN

John M. Buchanan, “Homiletical Perspective: Luke 17:11-19,” in David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol.4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 167.

Dale Lindsay Morgan, Jubilee: Luke’s Gospel for the Poor (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Church USA, 2008), 50-51.

Luke 17:13.
Luke 17:14.
Luke 17:19.

David Brown, “Counting Blessings is Healthful,” The Washington Post, March 10, 2003, A11.

Buchanan, in Feasting on the Word, 169.

“How Do You Get Ready for God?”
November 28, 2010
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Isaiah 2:1-5
Romans 13:11-14
Matthew 24:36-44

Today marks the beginning of the four-week season of preparation for the coming of Christ. But we don’t start the countdown to Christmas with the birth of Jesus. Instead, we start Advent at the end of the story, with scripture readings that tell of Christ’s Second Coming. By Christmas Eve, we will end up where it all began, in a stable in Bethlehem.

Going in reverse order ought to make perfect sense to us. Deciding where we are going, should come first. We’ve been taught to set long-range goals and short-term benchmarks for everything we do. Instant gratification is a myth. Even Black Friday shoppers know they have to get parking places by midnight, so they can go in and buy their toasters and sandwich makers at the mall at three o’clock in the morning when the stores open. Athletes are trained to visualize themselves breaking the tape at the finish line or scoring the goal or blocking the shot. Financial planners ask you where you’d like to be when you retire, so you can plan accordingly. Career counselors interview their clients about what they’d like to be doing in five years’ time. We set goals, and then we move toward them with measured steps. That’s how the world works.

Advent begins with measured steps, too. The first Sunday of Advent is called Hope Sunday. Today’s Bible passages are both strange and hopeful. In the lessons from Isaiah and Matthew and Romans, we hear about weapons of war, being turned into farming tools. We hear about Christians putting on the armor of light to fight the darkness. Christ, Himself, predicts a heavenly flood that will wash all the sin of the world.

Our hymns and choir anthem for today are hopeful. The titles of all these songs emphasize the word, “Come!”—“Come to Us, O Promised One,” “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” “Come, Let Us With Our Lord Arise!” and “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” No little town of Bethlehem, and no silent night-- at least, not yet! All our mind-pictures, on this first Sunday of Advent, are strong and compelling. For me, the most appealing example is the Old Testament prophet’s picture of peace: “The wolf shall lie down with the lamb.” Isaiah knows that God protects His people. I love those words of comfort.

But let’s be honest. There’s never been peace in the world during our own lifetimes. Sometimes, the dreams of Christians seem foolishly idealistic. Can we really hope for spears to be made into pruning hooks? Can we really expect Christ to descend from heaven, to call a halt to pain and stress, so that God’s reign of peace can start? Or, do we have a sneaking suspicion that these grand images from the Bible are just wishful thinking?

It’s easy to be suspicious of Advent hopes when we look back in time. Nothing we do, in the year 2010, can ever live up to our image of Christmas past—when the tree in Grandma’s window had real candles on it, and Santa drank the cup of cocoa we put by the chimney. Nothing in our adult lives has compared to the Christmas mornings when we got new Lionel trains and imagined ourselves walking in the little village under the tree. Nothing we’ve experienced as grown-ups has been as wonderful as the magical Christmases of our childhood.

There’s plenty of advice all around us, to help us get through the next four weeks. You know: the Christmas cookie recipes and ideas for reducing stress that you see in the newspapers and online. “Holidays Are A Crunch Time for Families,” “Dump Holiday Baggage and Focus Only on Joy”, or “Get Control of Christmas: Defuse Family Conflicts Before They Ruin the Season!” Here’s what the best articles tell us: Scale down your expectations. You need not do everything perfectly. There’s no need to buy Christmas gifts that please everybody, to lose twenty pounds, to decorate the outside of your house with five hundred multicolored lights, to bake twenty batches of cookies, or to wrap every gift with professional flair. Relax your standards, these articles say. You don’t live in “House Beautiful” and you’re not perfect.

Oddly enough, the Christian church, in its observance of Advent, advises exactly the same things. But we hope for very different results. The Bible readings for the first Sunday of Advent help us Christians to set major goals for ourselves. But the anticipated results aren’t smaller dreams. They are bigger ones. We hope for God’s peace all over the earth. We hope we’ll live to be a part of that peace.

The Apostle Paul gives us goals, in today’s Epistle lesson: Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Live honorably. Let Christ transform you into people who love one another. Paul’s telling us to clean up our act. This is a positive thing. Paul means that God is calling us to find places where there needs to be light. We can help people who are in immediate danger. We can spend quiet time, praying that the works of darkness disappear. We can be kind to everyone who waits with us in line or tries to take the parking spaces we had wanted. We can pray that the light of peace will bring healing to every corner of the world.

Are these hopes realistic? Sure! We can hold onto our large-scale hopes because God has kept His promises in the past. We can trust in God, and we can hope for joy and peace. But these goals lie ahead. We’re not there yet!

Advent is future-oriented. Yes, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. Yes, He actually died and was buried and rose again and appeared openly to His disciples. Yes, Christ lived in human history, as God in the flesh. But Advent isn’t just about history. Christ’s life was given for us so that we can live into the beautiful future God has prepared. The Christ child we are waiting to welcome, is the same baby who will make all things new for the world. Jesus will help us in all the ways we can’t help ourselves. He is the source of light and love.

Can you turn away from what you’ve been focusing on, and pray for peace in the world? Can you imagine it? Can you make yourself truly ready for it? Our hopes for the future will guide us through the dark days and nights of December. God holds the future, God prepares us for the future, and God calls us into that future. The Bible helps us to imagine what life will be like when warriors will beat their swords into plowshares and bend their spears into pruning hooks, and when the wolf lies down with the lamb. Advent hopes are realistic hopes. In a few weeks, we’ll be ready to say: “Behold! a virgin will conceive and bear a son.”

Let us pray. As we enter the season of Advent, help us prepare for your coming. Help us to remember where we have been, in the excitement of looking toward where we are going. Keep us ever watchful and true to your Word. May all that we do this season be pleasing to you. These things we pray, in Jesus’ name. AMEN

Scott Kraus and others, “Black Friday Shopping: It Was Insane,” The Morning Call, November 27, 2010, A1.

Kathleen Long Bostrom, For Everything A Season: a Study of the Liturgical Calendar (Louisville, KY: Horizons- PC(USA)), 2005, 16.

Isaiah 11:6
Romans 13:12-14.
Isaiah 2:4, Isaiah 11:6, Isaiah 9:6.


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