Monday, January 2, 2017

Sunday's Sermon – Sobering Up

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, January 1, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website ( for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

Matthew 2:13-23

And when [the magi] had gone away, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph saying, "Arise, take the child and his mother and escape into Egypt and remain there until I might tell you. For Herod intends to search for the child to destroy him." And after he arose, he took the child and his mother by night and went away into Egypt. And they were there until the end of Herod; in order that the word of Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled when he said, "Out of Egypt, I will call my son."

Then Herod, when he saw that he'd been tricked by the magi, was very angry. And he sent and murdered all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding country who were two years old and under, according to the time he'd learned from the magi. Then the word from Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled when he said, A voice in Rama was heard weeping and loud lamenting Rachel is weeping for her children, and she didn't want comfort, because they were no more.

And when Herod ended, behold an angel of the Lord appeared through a dream to Joseph in Egypt saying, "Arise, take the child and his mother and go into the land of Israel. For the one who sought the life of the child has ended." And after he arose, he took the child and his mother and went into the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was king of Judea in the place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned through a dream, he went away into the region of Galilee. And when he went, he settled in a town called Nazareth. Thus the word through the prophet was fulfilled that he will be called a Nazorene.

Sobering Up

Before I say anything else, I want to tell you how impressed I am to see y’all here this morning. Of course, I was impressed with the folks last week, but I understood why a lot of people weren’t here on Christmas morning. My gosh, if you’ve got kids or grandkids or great-grandkids, Christmas is a day to spend with them, right? Because I understand how important it is to watch them open their presents and to share with them maybe a special, Christmas breakfast and then, of course, to find out that the best present of all takes AAA, not AA batteries. And so, if you were here, I’m telling you, I was impressed.

But this morning, well, I’m impressed for a very different reason. Now I recognize that I’m talking to a bunch of Presbyterians, and as I’ve said before, we’re a people who believe we can do anything we want, we just can’t enjoy it. Therefore, I’m confident in saying that, as Presbyterians, we’d never do what our heathen neighbors were doing on New Years eve, and I’m not talking about watching football, although I’m not sure you could call the Ohio State game football. No, I’m sure that the reason y’all are here is that, last night, no one “got his or her swerve on” or “booted and rallied” or “crossfaded”, and just in case you haven’t read The Online Slang Dictionary, all those terms refer to drinking alcohol, you know, hooch, fire water, demon rum.

And I’ll tell you, for that reason, I don’t think any of ya’ll need to hear some of the ways I ran across for sobering up. Now, I found them online, not from experience, because we all know I’m a Presbyterian. No, these are ideas people suggested would work if you needed to sober up fast. Of course, most of them involved stuff I already knew, you know, like eating something or drinking a lot of coffee or getting some rest. But I did find something offered by a person with the handle “amethyst” interesting. She wrote, “I know a trick that worked for me every time when I was starting to get tipsy and needed to sober up quickly. As strange as this might sound, I used to look at myself in a mirror and tell myself over and over that I am sober. I did that for about 15 to 20 minutes, until I had no doubt anymore about my sobriety. And even though the alcohol was still affecting my body, it's effect on my mind was considerably weakened, and by all means, I was sober again.” Now, that’s really interesting, isn’t it? Of course, I assume “amethyst” must be pretty good looking, because if I tried it... But of course, I’d never need to, because I am a Presbyterian.

Of course, alcohol isn’t the only thing that people find intoxicating. In fact, I think a good case could be made for folks getting inebriated on the whole Christmas season, you know, with all the decorations and music and joy. And at the center of this celebration is the true reason for the season, Jesus Christ. And in spite of what I said earlier, this is something that even Presbyterians can enjoy.  And I think we do. In fact, we may enjoy it so much, I mean, our spirits and our perspectives can be so up-lifted, that it’s kind of hard entering that time after Christmas. I remember, when I was Maggie’s age, after the holidays, it seemed like we were entering the dog days of school, with nothing to look forward to but those three meesely days we got off at Easter. It was terrible. The high of Christmas comes crashing down with the coming of January and February and March. And I’ll tell you, even now, the song “Winter Wonderland” sure doesn’t cause me to feel the same way now as it did a month ago. You see, if we compare Christmas to maybe a hot toddy or a cup of eggnog, I think even Presbyterians may need to sober up the minute we enter the new year.

And I’ve got to tell you, for this kind of sobriety, I don’t think there’s anything better than reading and then maybe rereading this quaint little tale from Matthew. And although I really hate to say this about something in the Bible, but man, this is one horrible story, isn’t it? I mean, according to Matthew, the birth of Jesus has already happened and although he didn’t mention anything about mangers and shepherds and angelic hosts, he did write about the star and the Magi and the three gifts. As a matter of fact, I think if you compare this to what Luke wrote, Matthew’s account is actually more exalted, even cosmic.

That is, until we get to this stuff. And of course I’m talking about how that angel came to Joseph and warned him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt, using his words, “For Herod intends to search for the child to destroy him.” That’s not in Luke. Nor is what Herod actually did. “Then Herod, when he saw that he'd been tricked by the magi, was very angry. And he sent and murdered all the children in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding country who were two years old and under, according to the time he'd learned from the magi.” And then, at the end, after Herod died, the angel came again and directed Joseph not to take his family back to Bethlehem, but rather to settle in Nazareth of Galilee, because Archelaus was now king of Judea, and he was as crazy as his old man. I’m telling you, from start to finish this is harsh story, one that stands in pretty stark contrast with the season we’ve just finished up.

And I’ll tell you, I think that’s why it’s important for us to talk about it, you know, as we reenter our world realistically and objectively and soberly. You see, in this story I think there are two realities that we need to keep in mind as we live in the world as it is and not as we’d like it to be.

You see, first, I think this passage teaches us a lot about life in the real world, and let’s face it, that’s the only one we’ve got. I mean, whether we like it or not, whether we want it or not, man, whether we think we deserve it or not, we all know that life just, plain isn’t always fair, now is it? Now granted, we’re not dealing with some capricious and paranoid ruler who feels threatened by someone still in diapers and who has the power to do something about it. Praise the Lord, that’s not our world right here and now, but I’ll tell you, that’s the kind of stuff faced by people in societies that don’t have our democratic heritage. But even though me may not have to worry about death squads, that doesn’t mean we don’t face things that are unfair. I mean, whether it’s a teacher who just seems to have it in for you or a boss who enjoys using you as a punching bag or just another person who holds you to standards he never applies to anyone else, including himself, from time to time, I think we all feel as though life is unfair. And you know what? We’re right; life is unfair. My gosh, what else can we think when we don’t get the grade or the promotion or the appreciation that we think we deserve and others agree. And that’s certainly something we see in this story.

But more than that, what happens with Herod and the children of Bethlehem reminds us that our’s is also a violent world. And again, I think we can all praise God that right here, in this room, we may have never encountered this kind of violence, but I don’t think that would be case for the people in Aleppo or South Sudan or maybe in some of the cities right here in the United States. But even if the violence we face isn’t quite so graphic and physical, I mean, even if it often comes as words that may not break bones but that certainly hurt just the same, we still live in a world in which bad things happen to good people, to innocent people, to people who don’t deserve it. And frankly, although I think together we can do things to reduce number of times it happens and we can certainly do all we can to help the innocent and suffering victims, I really don’t think it can ever be eliminated. In other words, just like I don’t think we’ll ever win the war against poverty or drugs or terror, no matter how hard we try and I believe Jesus wants us to try as hard as we can, we’re never going to destroy all hatred and all oppression and all violence either. And for me, that’s what this story reminds us about the world in which we live.

But right along with that, second, I think it says something extremely important about the one whom we worship. Now, I’ll be straight with you, although it’s tempting and would be really easy to say something like, “because God saved Jesus and his family, that shows that God loves us and all we need to do is open our eyes and we’ll see it,” I’m not going to say that. You see, even though I believe to the core of my being that he does love us, I also believe that saying that in the face of those mothers from Bethlehem or Aleppo or South Sudan, man, that would be cruel. But even though, in light of this story, I’m not going to talk about God’s love for all people, I will say that this story points to God’s ultimate control over his creation, and that for creatures who can only live in the here and now and who have a difficult time seeing beyond the present, we might not be in the best position to understand that control. But it’s there in this story. You see, it’s there when that angel told Joseph to take Jesus to Egypt, not only to escape a mad king but, quoting what Matthew wrote, “in order that the word of Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled when he said, ‘Out of Egypt, I will call my son.’” And it’s there, after the angel told him to go back to the land of Israel, when Joseph was warned in a dream not to return to Judea, and so he went “to region of Galilee...and...he settled in a town called Nazareth, [and] thus the word through the prophet was fulfilled that he will be called a Nazorene.” You see, even though something horrible happened in Bethlehem, God was still in control.

And as a result, Jesus would eventually offer humanity a new way to live. And he would die on a cross to break the power of sin and would be raised to lock in our future. And of course, he would end up, after the resurrection, standing on a mountain and promising to be with us always, even to the end of the age. You see, according to God’s will, Jesus Christ became the savior, the redeemer of the world, including all those children and parents from Bethlehem. As Paul said so well in Romans, God’s will is always mercy and compassion. And in the midst of all the violence, I think we can see it reflected in this story.

Now, let me say again, how impressed I am that y’all are here and how glad I am that no one did anything last night that required a lot of food or coffee or rest or, heaven forbid, staring at yourself in a mirror for twenty minutes. We are indeed Presbyterian; therefore, sobering up is a foreign concept. But as it relates to leaving the joy of Christmas and reentering the world as it is, as shown in this story, let’s remember that we shouldn’t be surprised that life in the fast lane can be both unfair and violent, but also, that, even if we can’t see it or understand it, God is in control and that his last words to us and all his creation are “mercy and compassion.” And I’ll tell you, trusting in that may be all the sobriety we need.

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