Saturday, December 12, 2015

Fear! Philippians 4:4-7

Philippians 4:4-7
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Those are words we associate with Advent and Christmas.

But - With the terrorist attack in Paris, and the more recent events in San Bernadino, California.   Americans are gripped with fear.

We are afraid.

We want to build a wall around this country – because we are gripped with fear.

We want buy a gun – because we are afraid at work and at home and in the car.

We want to buy security alarms and video cameras for our homes – because we are afraid of who might break in.

We want to keep our children away from the public parks – because we are afraid of strangers.

In this age of fear, what can we do to make sure that we and our families are safe?

(long pause)


The world is a dangerous place.

Get used to it.

Want to buy a gun?  No one will stop you, but understand we are a nation in which there are 88 guns for every 100 people, and it has not made us a safer place.

Want to put up an alarm system in your house?  Fine.  But burglars can still break in, steal your new TV set and be out the back door before the police arrive.

Do you put your seat belt on when you drive?  I do this every time.  But am I safe?  No.  I am certainly safer than I am without one – but I am not completely safe.  If I’m hit by a tanker truck going 70 mph and carrying a ton of gasoline – well, I’m pretty much doomed even with the seatbelt I insist on wearing and that keeps me safer – but not completely safe.

The world is a dangerous place.

But this has always been true.  ISIS and mass shootings have not introduced us to a sudden change – life has always been this way.

Now, yes - we can do some things to make the world around us safer for our selves and our children – wear that seat belt, take precautions, but understand that you will never be completely safe.

What you can do is deal with this fear that is taking over the lives of so many people in our country.

It is this fear that is the most dangerous enemy in our society.

George R. R. Martin, in his book, A Game of Thrones, writes, “Fear cuts deeper than swords.”

It is fear more than anything else that will destroy our lives and our nation.

And that is – after all, what terrorist want.  Terrorists don’t want to bomb buildings or kill people – that is a means to an end, and their end, their primary goal is to cripple us with fear. 

Terror  -- the very word comes from Latin verb that means to frighten.

And we are frightened. 

We are afraid.

Now against this fear is the Scripture.

The Psalms are full of such words of courage.  Psalm 118 (5-7):

With the Lord on my side I do not fear.
    What can mortals do to me?

Well, mortals can do a lot to us.  After all, it is a dangerous world.

It is not safe.

But in a world that has always been unsafe, we can say, as the Psalmist did, “With the Lord on my side, I do not fear.”

Remember Psalm 23?

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”

But we are deadly frightened of evil.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In a world that has always had evil, we do not have to fear.   We can still have peace.

Frederick Buechner, in his reflection of the 23rd Psalm, reminds us that this psalm does not pretend that evil and death do not exist.  He says, “Terrible things happen, and they happen to good people as well as to bad people. Even the paths of righteousness lead through the valley of the shadow. Death lies ahead for all of us, saints and sinners alike, and for all the ones we love. The psalmist doesn't try to explain evil. He doesn't try to minimize evil. He simply says he will not fear evil. For all the power that evil has, it doesn't have the power to make him afraid.”

Rather than struggling to find a safety that we will never completely have, we need to seek courage.  We need to find that attitude of being at peace in an unsafe world. 

We do not have to succumb to the terrorist’s effort to terrorize us with fear. 

You know what Jesus said in the New Testament about how to be safe?

This is what he said – he said it in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 12.

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more…Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight… Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

Now – wait.  Jesus didn’t tell us here how to be safe.  What he did say was how to be free of fear in a world that was filled with people who, as he put it, could kill the body.

In a world of evil, we will not fear.  We will have peace.

St. Paul in our New Testament lesson said, “Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again I say it – Rejoice.”

Throughout the letter there is a sense of informality, friendship, optimism.  But there is also a sense of impending death and a reflection that Paul is in prison and suffering a harsher prison environment than he had previously endured.   He has every reason to be afraid, but instead of fear he says, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.”

And he goes onto say in the midst of this chaotic time in his life when his very life is being threatened, “May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds.” 

In a world of dangers, we will have peace.

One of the great quotations about fear comes from an American President, Franklin Roosevelt.  He said that great line, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Great line.

Those words were spoken in his first inaugural speech in 1933.  The nation and the world was in the grip of the Great Depression.

One out of every four people was unemployed.

Homelessness was at an all time high.

Hitler had just been elected as chancellor of Germany and Nazism was rising.

The future looked bleak.

And it was bleak.

It was at that time that Franklin Roosevelt was elected president, and when he was inaugurated he gave a speech to the nation and in it he made this statement:

The withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side;
farmers find no markets for their produce;
the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone…
A host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence,
an equally great number toil with little return.
Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

But the one line that is remembered in that speech was the line that came very early in his manuscript:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Now, here is an interesting bit of history about that speech.

If you look at the earliest draft of this speech – which is arguably one of the greatest speeches in American history, you will not find that famous line about fear.

In its place you will read these words.

America is a sick nation in the midst of a sick world. We are sick because of our failure to recognize economic changes in time, and to make provision against their consequences.” 

Man!  Thank goodness somebody changed that depressing line.

Now, here is what happened to change the words of the speech between that first draft and the final delivery. 

Like most Presidents, Roosevelt had a speech writer, a Columbia University political science professor by the name of Raymond Moley.  He delivered a first draft to FDR and then he joined the President-elect and others on a relaxing trip to Florida.

While he was here in the Sunshine state, FDR was delivering some informal remarks to a crowd when gunfire rang out.  The gunman killed the mayor of Chicago, who was also in that Florida crowd at the time, but he missed his intended target --  FDR. 

Moley witnessed the entire event. Later that evening, expecting to find a very frightened Roosevelt, Moley instead noted how relaxed, calm, and perhaps even peaceful Roosevelt was in the face of mortal danger.

Two days later, while flying from Florida to Cincinnati in a two-seated Army airplane, Moley’s pilot lost his way and ran out of gas; they crash-landed in a farmer’s field near Maynardville, Tennessee. Remarkably, both the pilot and Moley were unharmed.

In the face of those frightening experiences, Moley came up with this now famous line for FDR’s speech –“the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes.”

More recently, our current President addressed the nation just a few nights ago and he told us, “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.”

And an even greater weapon against fear is love.  1 John 4:18
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

So those of us who are paralyzed by fear – let us remind ourselves of the Gospel. 

It does not have to be this way.

But in a world that has always had its dangers, we will not fear.  We can still have peace.

When Paul said, “Rejoice always,” he was in prison facing eventual death. 

And if Paul was with us right now, in this place, and reading about the terrorist attacks in Paris and in California, he would tell us that we do not have to be afraid.  There is something greater than the evils that frighten us.

I believe Paul would say to us, as he said to his friends 2 thousand years ago, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.   Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Prepare the Way - Luke 3:1-6

New Testament Lesson                                                                      Luke 3:1-6
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler[a] of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler[b] of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler[c] of Abilene,during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

When my wife and I learned that we were going to have a child, we were very excited and we enrolled in Lamaze classes.

These were classes to prepare both of us for the experience of child birth.  I have to say that while it is not unusual for the father to be present in the delivery room when the child is born, when my son was born, that was cutting edge stuff.

I told my father about our plans and he pulled me aside.

“Oh son,” he said, “you don’t want to do that.  When you were born, you were delivered in the hospital, but when your older sister was born, children were born at home.  It was me and the doctor and we were all alone with your mother.  She was in such pain.  She scratched my arms something terrible.  And your sister – let me tell you.  She may have later been first runner up in the Miss South Carolina beauty padgeant, but when she came out into the world she was the ugliest thing I had ever seen.  She was all slimy and hairy.  It was awful.  It gave me nightmares for weeks.  And by the way, don’t you ever tell you sister about this.”

So of course, I couldn’t wait to call my sister. 

She laughed and said Mom had told her all about that years ago.

My Dad was not prepared for the birth process. 

In my day we took classes.  Now --- there’s Youtube. 

Preparation – it can make all the difference.

Preparation, whether for childbirth, or a test in school, or marriage, or investing for retirement is often the difference between success and failure.

And so we come to the New Testament lesson for today and we read the words describing the preaching of John the Baptist, as he used the words of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah - “Prepare the way of the Lord…”


It is important.

In ancient times, when a king was going to visit a city, he would send before him someone to herald his coming.  It was this person’s job to announce the coming of the king and to make sure the city was prepared.

This herald would go around the city.  He would inspect the city and give instruction on preparing the roads, sprucing up the buildings, and making sure everything was clean.  He would meet with the leaders of the community and help them to know what to do.  The city career criminals would be rounded up and locked up for safe keeping, guilty or not. 

This is not just in ancient times – when the President of the United States comes to town, there are changes in air traffic as well as on the Interstate.  Media teams go to work.  Security escalates.  Everyone wants a photo op with the President.  Secret Service and FBI work hard to see who might be a threat.


When John the Baptist used these words, he applied them to the first coming of Jesus as the Messiah and called on people to repent and be baptized and to start a new life.

But it occurs to me that this Word of God is, for us today, more than a reflection on the history of John the Baptist.  It is a call for us to give thought to how we might intentionally and carefully prepare for the celebration of Christ’s birth.

This is our second Sunday of Advent and this season is such a great gift to us. 

The four weeks of Advent are the four weeks that lead to Christmas, and Advent Season proclaims a time of preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas.

In a sense, most of us are pretty good at preparing for Christmas.

We have a place we buy our tree, or in the garage or attic for the artificial one.

There is a rhythm and plan to our preparations.

Ornaments, wreaths, the usual parties, gifts, Christmas Eve at the church, we know how it works.

It may be stressful, but we know how we want to proceed.

Comedian Mona Crane said there are three ways to prepare to get something done:

Do it yourself,
hire someone,
or forbid your kids to do it.

We know how to get things ready for Christmas.

But getting ready for Christmas is not the same as getting spiritually ready to celebrate the birth of Christ.

But how do we prepare for Jesus?

How do we make ready to have Jesus speak to our hearts and minds?

John ends his quote from Isaiah with the words, “and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

And that’s the thing.  That is the real question.  Are people able to see the salvation of God when they look at us?

It is easy to put up a Christmas wreath on the door, and people see that – but do they see the love of God when they look at us.

It is easy to put up the Christmas tree, and people coming into our homes can see that tree, but do people look at us and see the acceptance of Christ in how we live?  Or hear those words of acceptance as they listen to what we say?

A concern for “the least of these”?




If we want people to see Jesus this Christmas season, they have to find Him in you and me.

These things that help people see the salvation of God in us do not come by accident.  They have to be practiced.  They have to be put into our lives intentionally by our decisions to live our love, peace and sacrifice.

There’s an old story about golf champion Ben Hogan. He was a great golfer a long time ago.  I saw him the one and only time I went to the Masters in Augusta, GA, which was in 1965, and by then he was at the end of his long career. 

The story is that after Hogan had won a major tournament, a reporter asked him: “How is it that, under pressure, you’re able to hit so many miraculous shots?”

After reflecting for a moment, Hogan answered, “I guess I’m just lucky.”

“But, Mr. Hogan,” the reporter came back, “you practice more than any golfer who ever lived.”

“Well,” Hogan said, “the more I practice the luckier I get.”

It’s all in preparation.

The more we practice being like Jesus, the luckier we will be in acting like Jesus.

And people will notice.

People will see the salvation of God by looking at us.

And now unto God the Father,
God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit be ascribed all might, power, dominion and glory, today and forever, Amen.
Copyright 2015. 
Dr. W. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved

Ministers may feel free to use some or all of this sermon in their own ministries as long as they do not publish in print or on the Internet without ascribing credit to the author.