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October 2015 Sermons:
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

"Taking the Good With the Bad" — October 4
"Where's the Glory?" — October 11
"Faith to Follow" — October 18


“Taking the Good With the Bad”
October 4, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Job 1:1; 2: 1-10

Have you ever felt that your faith was being tested? You are going along just fine, and then suddenly, out of the blue, disaster strikes. Sometimes we feel we’ve had more than our fair share of frightening life events.  

Today’s Old Testament lesson is from the book of Job. Job was a deeply religious man who had the best of everything life had to offer. God had blessed him with more land and livestock than any of his neighbors. Job was proud of his seven sons and three daughters. He had love, wealth and fame. His people believed that God rewarded faith with good fortune. It certainly looked, to his neighbors, like Job was right with God! Everything in his life had gone his way. Above all, he loved God and hated evil.

As the story goes, one day the angels gave God an update on their activities on earth. On that particular day, Satan came with them. God was proud of Job’s faithfulness. Satan believed he was faithful because he had so much. What would happen, Satan wondered, if Job lost everything? Would he remain faithful to God? There was only one way to find out. So God gave Satan permission to test Job—on the condition that his life be spared. A string of pointless tragedies began to rain down on this good man. And God was being tested, too.

One day a messenger informed Job that an enemy had stolen his livestock and killed his workers. While Job was grieving over the loss of his employees, another messenger told him that fire had destroyed all his sheep, and that an enemy had seized his camels. Every source of Job’s livelihood had been wiped out. Then came the most devastating news of all. While his grown children were dining at one of their homes, a storm blew the house down, killing all of them. Job stood among the ruins of the burned-down home in disbelief. He had lost his livelihood and his family in one afternoon.

There was one thing that Job didn’t lose and that was his relationship with God. Job believed in God with all his heart. He believed that God is good all the time. In the midst of his grief Job could still proclaim, "Blessed be the name of the Lord." It was obvious that God had won the bet with Satan.

The outcome of the wager didn’t convince Satan. The devil wondered what would happen if Job lost his health, on top of everything else. Would he still be faithful to God? Job became infected with painful sores from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head. Would this be the last straw? It would be impossible to hide a skin disease. You may remember how lepers were treated in the ancient Middle East. The Jews believed that terrible physical afflictions were God’s punishment for sin.

Job's wife found him sitting in a pile of ashes, out in the middle of nowhere. Seeing her husband in pain, she wanted to put him out of his misery. “Curse God and die!” she told him. If Job had taken his wife's advice, Satan would have won the challenge. Although Job had lost so much, he clung to his relationship with God. He dismissed his wife's advice, telling her, "You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?"  

Anyone who has lived very long, comes to realize that life is punctuated with disaster, either brought on by natural causes or human failure. Sometimes we are bystanders, caught up in terrible events not of our own making. The California fires are still raging, and there’s been another school shooting, so this past week has been full of tragedy. Sometimes we know we’ve played a role in the tragic events in our lives. That’s what happened to Auntie Anne. Anne and Jonas were married in 1968 in Downingtown, Pennsylvania. Jonas had his own body shop where Anne also worked. This young couple got together with other couples at church. Life was good for them. Three years into their marriage they were blessed with a daughter. A couple of years later a second daughter, Angela Joy, was born. Anne thanked God for her blessings.

That dream was shattered one September morning in 1975. As twenty-month-old Angela Joy scampered across the yard to visit her grandma, Anne heard a loud scream. She ran out of the house only to be met by her father holding her lifeless baby daughter in his arms. Angie had been killed instantly when Anne's sister had accidentally backed the tractor onto her daughter.

After the funeral Anne and Jonas tried to bury their grief by working harder at their church. There was a deep-seated pain in their lives. "No matter how much I devoted myself to church work," Anne says, "the emptiness inside me wouldn't go away." She wondered if her daughter would still be alive if only she had kept a closer watch over her. During this time Anne and Jonas' marriage started to suffer. Soon the family moved to another state. In their new community, their marriage continued to crumble. 

Their new church sponsored a marriage seminar, and Anne and Jonas went together. This was the first step in their healing. Then they went for private counseling. It was then that Jonas felt God speaking to him. "There are families out there who need help," he said, "but they don't know where or how to find it." Jonas dreamed of starting a center that would offer free counseling. 

The family moved back home. Jonas enrolled in a counseling program, while Anne got a job at a farmer's market stand. She hand rolled soft-pretzels at the stand. In the first year, Anne found herself selling more than two thousand pretzels every day. "Auntie Anne's Pretzels" was born in 1988. Four years later, with the profits, they opened the Family Information Center which offers free counseling. Today it employs ten counselors and has helped many families. Anne’s pretzel concessions have done well, too. Auntie Anne’s can be found in fifty-one countries.

As Anne reflects over her journey, she says: "Jonas and I have built a marriage based on the love that kept us together -- God's love, the truest of all." Job, like Anne and Jonas, clung to his relationship with God. Even though he suffered tragic loss, Job continued to believe that God would never desert him.

There isn’t time, today, to tell Job’s entire story, but by the time it ends, God has spoken to him through a tornado. Job continues to worship God. His faith has looked squarely into the face of the worst, and he’s ended up believing the best. In chapter 42, we learn that Job lives more than a hundred years.

What can we learn from Job’s story? It invites us to bring our pain before God. The warning here is that we have to accept good and bad alike, however hard that can be. Job’s example offers us a way to understand the crucifixion of Jesus. Christ died so the world might worship God as one. Job’s book also tells us that the best way of comforting a person, is just to be there.


Almighty God, today we join together with Christians everywhere, drawn by the gift of Christ’s life in our behalf. Only by having the chance to wrestle with evil do we discover how strong you are, how strong is Jesus’ love, and how strong we can become. Grant us courage, O God, through the struggles of our lives. Amen.


“Where's the Glory?”
October 11, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 10:35-45

The adjective, “great,” is used too much. There are hundreds of book titles in the Whitehall Township Public Library that start with the word, “great.” The Great Gatsby, Great Expectations, and Great Religions of the World, to name a few. Film titles: “The Great Santini,” “The Great Train Robbery” and the “Great Muppet Caper” all come to mind. We can name song titles that start with the word, “great” — the golden oldie, “Great Balls of Fire;” the hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” and many more. The word “great,” is overused, but it still grabs our attention.

Would you like to have the word, “great,” associated with your name? How do your family and your friends measure greatness? How do you measure it? Is it about being on the cover of Time, seeing your name on a billboard, or going to dinner at the White House? Or is it about giving your life to God? What does a great Christian look like? Like Jesus, of course.

James and John have been following Jesus for almost a year. To them, He’s the greatest of the great, headed for Jerusalem to win a victory. All along the way, His deeds have touched them deeply. They’ve witnessed the sick being healed. They’ve seen crowds fed with a handful of loaves and fish. They’ve seen wind and sea obey Him as He calmed the storm. The great deeds of Jesus have transformed the faith of these young brothers, but not quite enough. Although James and John have seen His power, they haven’t yet caught on to the idea of the first being last and the last being first.

James and John approach Jesus with a big question because they respect His power and authority. Their request is audacious! On the positive side, it shows they have faith in Him. They say, "Teacher, we want you to do whatever we ask of you." This is the kind of naïve request a child might make of a parent. They think they want to be great. What they really want is to be close to Jesus. At the heavenly banquet they’re hoping to be seated, one at His right and one at His left in glory.

But Jesus tells them that this privilege will come with a high price. Jesus has a radical new definition of greatness. For Him, the value of a life can’t be measured in earthly power. Jesus has no interest in glory. He strives to be a good servant, and He expects His followers to live the same way. He warns them that the privilege of being with Jesus in paradise isn’t for Him to give. That choice belongs to God alone.

Mark was a leader of the early church in Rome. Scholars believe He placed this story in his gospel, in the place where he put it, to teach a lesson to church leaders, who were competing for prestige.

What are the defining marks of a Christian? First, a Christian has an attitude of openness. To follow Christ is a new adventure all the time. Jesus never approaches any two people in the same way. One should never lump a group of people together—“those tea party people,” “those left-leaning people,” “those old people,” or “those housewives.” Each person is different. To follow Jesus is to be open to God's leading in every new situation.

Second, a Christian, like Jesus, ought to know his or her Bible, and go to church regularly. Jesus himself knew the Hebrew scriptures. He quoted them and He knew the stories. We are saved by grace, and not by counting the number of times we read the Bible or go to church. But we cannot be saved by grace if we don’t receive it in the first place. The Bible and the church are our channels of saving Christian grace. We can’t say we are saved by grace and ignore the sources of that grace.

We often overlook what we have in the Bible - in both the Old and the New Testament. These stories are God's gifts to us and they point the way. We also overlook what we have in the church: a community of faith which helps us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

Third, a Christian must accept that there will be struggle in his or her life. Jesus constantly struggled along the path that God had given Him. The Pharisees tried to trick Him with their questions. The disciples misunderstood what their mission was all about. The authorities eventually used Judas to plot against Him, and all of these things led to the cross. The cross summarizes the meaning of Jesus’ life. It reminds us of two things: that faith is not easy, but that God can find a way, even a way beyond the cross to victory.

In an old Methodist hymnal there is a hymn titled "Jesus Demands my All." It’s complicated to play and sing. It has five flats in the key signature. A key with a lot of sharps or flats is never easy to play on the piano. In that old hymnal there’s an asterisk that appears next to the title of that hymn. When you look at the bottom of the page the footnote says, "For an easier version, see hymn number 438." What this means was that there’s a tune in the hymnal, in the key of C, that works just as well with the same lyrics. Who among us would overlook an easier way to do something?

The problem is not with the things that we want. The problem is that we give too much power to those things. We all know stories of people who achieve fame and many material things. They end up with everything but faith to survive what life throws at them. In a story in Guideposts, an actress who played a detective on a television series, tells about feeling that something was missing in her life, in her quest to make it as an actress. She decided to volunteer at a local soup kitchen, where she befriended a homeless man named Jim. From his own struggles, Jim was able to share sound advice with her. Jim told her, “If you don’t like the way your life looks, change the way you look at it.” At my fiftieth high school reunion I spoke with a man I had dated in high school, who went on to fame as a daytime television actor and a talk show host. As a 68-year-old, he was lonely and drained. But back in the eighties, I’d predicted that he would be much greater than I, or any other person in our class.

Jesus was the wisest person who ever lived. If He encountered life as a struggle, why will it be different for us? Do we face our struggles with confidence in God’s love for us, or do we face them alone? As disciples learned to follow Jesus, they began to change.

We get it wrong, just like James and John did. So many, in our society, have it backwards! Jesus isn’t the one who helps us get what we want from God. Jesus is God’s way of getting what God wants out of us. God created the world to be a heaven on earth. God will redeem this world through servant leaders, rather than rich celebrities. His life did lead to glory, but the way to glory led Him to the cross first. Jesus calls us and says, “Come, take up your cross too; some follow me and take up the challenge of a life that’s lived in the light of my life!”


Let us pray. O, God, we all have a small voice inside of us that cries out to be glorified. The voice comes from a part of ourselves that we wish were not there. Give us, we pray, the power to resist that voice. Help us to seek the servant way of Christ. AMEN


“Faith to Follow”
October 18, 2015
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
The Reverend Joyce Smothers

Mark 10:46-52

Jesus handled interruptions well. That is the quality I most admire in Him. I wish I could be as patient as He was, with this blind beggar. Today’s Gospel lesson is about one of the many times when Jesus met a needy stranger along the way, heard his cries, and took the time to stop, to listen, and to heal.

Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem. With so little time left in His earthly ministry, He must have felt a sense of urgency on this last big journey. He was traveling with a huge crowd of pilgrims to Jerusalem for Passover. In a few days, He would have His triumphal entry into the city on Palm Sunday. Along the way, He taught His disciples their final lessons.

The road ahead would be difficult, in more ways than one. The group was traveling a road that, even today, is steep and dangerous. They would have to walk seventeen miles uphill, in scorching heat. Back then, thieves and robbers behind bushes, and around bends in that road, to rob travelers. But the mood of that crowd would have been joyful, in spite of the difficult climb. They would have been wondering what would happen next on their trip to the Holy City. They knew they could expect great things from Jesus, the front runner for Messiah status. They would be part of living history.

All of a sudden, there were loud shouts from a blind beggar sitting by the road: “Jesus, have mercy! Have mercy!” You can imagine how annoyed the crowd was, at this interruption. It was coming from another “worthless” beggar by the side of the road. The people shouted at Him to be quiet, wanting to protect their leader from this annoyance. But the beggar kept shouting: “Jesus, have mercy! Jesus, have mercy!”

Jesus stopped. He asked the beggar, “What do you want me to do for you?” The beggar, whose name was Bartimaeus, knew what he wanted. He expected great things from Jesus, and he knew that he wanted to be able to see. And then, suddenly, he saw with 20/20 vision! Just like that! Jesus told him that his faith had made him well. Bartimaeus picked up his bedroll and started following after Jesus.

If Jesus healed some people, and performed miracles for them, why don’t we always see a miracle when we call to Jesus?

Years ago, I taught a senior high Sunday School class about Joni Eareckson Tada, a woman who broke her neck in a diving accident when she was young. Many decades after her injury occurred, Joni is still paraplegic. Today, she is known all over the world as an inspirational speaker and a woman of strong faith. But in the early days after her accident, people in her church would quote the Bartimaeus story to her. They would apply his situation to hers, asking, “What is wrong with your faith? Why aren’t you healed the way Bartimaeus was?

Bartimaeus is one good example of faith, because he recognized who Jesus was, and knew clearly what he wanted from Him. But so did Joni. People still say to her, "You must not have enough faith." This is a shallow view of this woman and her story. In her book, Joni talks about how it feels to be told that her faith is weak, when it is actually very strong. She has discovered the strength of her intellect, and has found a second career, called by God to be an evangelist.

People don’t realize that this story has a second level of meaning. Yes, this is a miracle story of a blind man who was given physical sight. Jesus stopped, and Jesus healed. Jesus still heals the body today, but not all the time. You are probably asking yourselves, “Why would Jesus heal Bartimaeus, but still seems to ignore my pain?” Joni asked herself this question. There is enough pain to go around in this world. We all imagine that, if we were God, we would do something about it.

But this story of blind Bartimaeus is about more than a physical healing. It is about a man who was given something more than he asked from Jesus. Bartimaeus expected great things from Jesus. He got the best kind of miracle. He was able not only to see Jesus, but also to understand Him. What Bartimaeus got was spiritual vision, so that he could see Jesus and see God, and to follow His leader to Jerusalem. This is a story about physical eyesight. But, even more, it is a story about spiritual vision.

A man named John illustrates the meaning of this story. John, at age 17, ran his car off the road and into a tree. The other boy in the car was killed. John suffered damage to his brainstem, and is severely impaired in his physical movement. He can move his right arm a little, and has very slight movement in his right leg. Now, John keeps calling out to Jesus, saying along with blind Bartimaeus, "Have mercy on me. Have mercy on me." If anyone ever had faith, John does. If anyone ever expected great things from Jesus, it's John. Many years after his accident, John still believes that he will walk someday.

What can we say to a person like John? We might say that Jesus has done a miracle in John's life, but not one of physical healing. John still sits in his wheelchair. But John has received the miracle of spiritual vision. He sits in church every Sunday, singing hymns from memory. He constantly reminds the people in the congregation what God can do. When asked to read the Scripture lesson on Sundays, John memorizes the whole passage and speaks it without looking at the Bible or a script. Jesus has stopped by this young man, and a miracle has happened. John has better spiritual vision than most people who walk. He sees God very clearly and follows after Jesus.

We may expect great things from Jesus. What is it in your life that if you saw Jesus passing by, you would cry out? Would you cry out of your physical pain? Would you cry out of loneliness? Would you cry out of discouragement with what life has given you? Would you cry out of weariness? Would you cry, "Jesus have mercy?" Whenever we cry out to Jesus we should expect great things. Jesus will hear our cries, and will stop. We can’t be sure Jesus will always fix everything that’s wrong with us. Sometimes He does and sometimes He doesn’t.

But when we cry, "Jesus, have mercy," we will receive far more than we ask. Like Bartimaeus, we will receive spiritual vision to follow Jesus through our struggles. For Jesus is more than a worker of physical miracles. Jesus is the Lord of life who went to Jerusalem to die on the Cross, and to be raised again. The full message of the Gospel lies not only in physical miracles, but also in the miracle of resurrection. When we cry "Jesus have mercy,” we receive spiritual vision through our suffering. What we see is Jesus. From Him, by the greatest miracle of all, we find faith to follow.


Let us pray. When hope seems lost, speak to us, O God, as Jesus spoke to Bartimaeus. May your word of kindness and healing bring us back to our feet and enable us to walk with full sight. Amen


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