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2018.12.02:Wait Until You Believe

Preached at First Presbyterian Church, East Aurora, NY, December 2, 2018, by Langdon “Buddy” Hubbard

 

Wait Until You Believe

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10 Luke 1:1-25

 

            The gospel story of Jesus’ life begins in Luke, not with Jesus at all, but with the birth of his cousin, John the Baptist, who will prepare the way of the Lord. 

 

            It was in the days of King Herod of Judea, a puppet king serving the Roman emperor to keep the Jewish people in line.  The years were likely 6-7 BCE when this event takes place.  There was at the time a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah, and who therefore would serve on a rotating basis with several other priests, each taking a one week stint twice a year in the Temple.  Zechariah was married to a woman named Elizabeth, who was a descendent of Aaron, Israel’s first priest, and so also from a priestly family.  They both are described as righteous before God, that is right in their relationship with God, and living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.  These were two really great and faithful people.

           

            But there was a problem, a troubling problem indeed.  For all their goodness they were not able to have children because Elizabeth was barren.  And they were both “getting on in years,” which was a nice way of saying they were pretty old.  Now we wouldn’t see anything particularly wrong with this situation, maybe sad since they wanted children, but not evidence of any defect, whether morally or in character, in either of them.  Except in those biblical times that’s exactly what people thought.  If you can’t have children there is something wrong with you.  It was a sign of God’s disfavor of you, and therefore a disgrace.

 

            On one of Zechariah’s two week stints for priestly duties, he was chosen by lot to offer the incense.  This was a really big deal, because this  privilege was a once in a lifetime opportunity.  You can imagine the thrill it must have been for Zechariah, and such an honor.

 

            He goes into the temple to the altar to offer the incense, while the people outside are praying for him, when suddenly right there at the altar, he is confronted by the presence of an angel.  He was terrified, so much so that fear overwhelmed him, bringing him to his knees. But the angel said, what angels always say, “Do not be afraid.  Your prayer has been heard.  You and your wife are going to have a baby boy and you will name him John.  And he will bring so much joy and gladness to you both.  In fact, everyone is going to celebrate for joy at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord, with a divine purpose.  You’ve got to make sure he never drinks wine or any strong drink – he will be set apart for God and God alone, to be pure in every way.  And from the time he is conceived he will be filled with the Holy Spirit – yes, even before he is born.  He has a most important job to do: to turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, that is, to repent and turn away from all that is evil, to turn to God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.  He will go in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah to turn the hearts of parents to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

 

            Needless to say, Zechariah got more than he bargained for that day.  He must have thought, “No wonder we only get to do this once in our lifetime.  No one could handle this more than once!”

 

            In Jewish teaching Elijah the prophet was expected to return to life to make peace, reassemble the tribes, purify Israel, restore the manna from heaven, and raise the dead.  A rather tall order.  He wasn’t necessarily seen as the forerunner of the Messiah, but even still, at every Seder meal every Passover, every family is to leave one seat empty at their table, for Elijah when he comes again.  Christians readily see this promise as that of the one who comes to prepare the way of the Lord, the Messiah, the one who comes into the world to save the world, Jesus the Christ.

 

            You know most people have normal dreams for their children: to be happy, to get a good education, get a good job, maybe get married and have children.  That’s it.  No one thinks their child will be the President of the United States, let alone the Savior of the whole world!  Or even just the one who prepares the way for the Savior to come.  Zechariah really didn’t even believe he would ever have a child, even though he prayed for one.  So the news overwhelmed him.  It would overwhelm us all.

 

            And so when the angel gives him this awesome promise, all Zechariah can say is, “How will I know that this is so?  For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.”  Again, a nice way of saying “My wife is an old woman.  You know she can’t have children.” 

 

            The angel is perturbed with his answer.  He had expected Zechariah would be thrilled because he was getting more than the answer to his prayer.  Instead, he was met with unbelief.  How will I know?  How can this be?  I’m old and limited and so is my wife.  It can’t happen. It’s impossible.  These were the messages Zechariah sent to the angel.

 

            The angel bristles.  “I am Gabriel.  And I stand in the presence of God, who has sent me to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”  At least God meant it to be good news.  But you just don’t believe God can do everything, or anything for that matter.  You need to take a step back for awhile and think about these things until you get some faith.  So “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”   

 

            Wow.  Silence. Nine months of silence.  That’s a lot of time to think.  Time to pray.  Time to come away and listen more carefully to God.  Time to unplug from his normal daily activities to make more space for God.  Time to wait until faith comes and he believes the promises of God.

 

            When he comes out of the Temple the people, who had grown worried since they had been waiting longer than normal for him to come out, can see something significant has happened to him.  They can tell by looking at his face that he must have seen a vision.  Maybe he actually has seen God!  He  completed his term of service and went home, leaving the people wondering what had happened to him.  They too will have to wait in the silence to see.

 

            Not long after, Elizabeth got pregnant after all.  She was ecstatic, saying, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”  And she went into seclusion for the next five months.  And Zechariah joined her in the silence and seclusion.  Elizabeth had believed all along that God could do this.  But God still has work to do in Zechariah, a work that will be done in silence as he waits for the promise to be given birth.

 

            God does some of the most important work in us in the times of silence and waiting.  Has that been true for you?  It has for me.  So much of my life I seem to be waiting for something.  I remember before coming to be the pastor here, I spent much time during a silent retreat for two days praying and listening for how God might lead me.  It was a time of intense listening with no other external stimuli but my heart learning to beat in rhythm with God’s heart.  In time it became clear to me that First Presbyterian Church in East Aurora was the place I needed to be.  And I’m glad I listened.  I still believe it is true.

 

            But there have been a few times since I came here 17 years ago that I have wondered if the time had come for me to leave.  The last time was after I preformed a same sex marriage and there was some conflict in the church over it.  I entered into what a period of what I came to call, “my 19 months of hell.”  I really struggled to know if I should stay or go.  Most of my minister friends told me that there was no way for me to recover and that I should leave.  I actually opened up the door to see if I should, but then all the doors shut and all I could do was stay. I remembered how monks live by a simple rule: don’t run from your troubles, but stay, and wait, and pray.

 

            During that time I simply prayed and waited to know how God wanted me to live going forward.  I realized I needed to make some changes in myself, being more careful not to let my passion for justice turn into judgment of those who disagreed with me, and to apologize when I hurt people..  I also learned that sometimes we try to flee from painful and difficult situations before it’s time for us to go.  Sometimes we need to stay and wait to see what God might do. 

 

            During that time we changed our Sunday School and worship schedule on Sunday mornings, we approved of having same sex marriage in our sanctuary, we changed our worship service to blend together traditional and contemporary elements, we hired Molly Pearson to be our Sunday School coordinator.  And we adopted a vision for the 3rd century of our life and mission as a church.  And guess what?  The church turned around.  We went from having 5-10 children on a Sunday to 15-40, and our worship services came alive, full of people of all ages and walks of life.  And to think I would have missed all of that had I been able to leave.  And now with the hiring of Andrew Welch as our youth leader and Brad Meholick as our Music Director, I am newly re-energized.  I really love what God is doing in our church.  We are alive! I just had to wait long enough to see the birth.

 

            Sometimes God has other plans for us than we could ever imagine.  It’s too easy to leave before God’s work is done in us.  If only we could wait a little while longer, accept the seeming silence of God, as an opportunity to become silent ourselves in order to listen and pay attention to what God might be saying, we might actually hear God’s voice calling us, leading us in ever new ways.  Like Zechariah and Elizabeth. 

 

            During this Advent season I highly recommend that you take some time for silence and solitude, and even some seclusion, simply to be alone with God and your own thoughts, and heart, and soul.  As a church we observe an Advent Sabbath with no business meetings, as much as possible, in order to free everyone up for those things that replenish and nurture the soul, like worship, and prayer, and study, fellowship, and mission. 

 

            In the silence Christ comes to us to guide us, speak to us, and show us the way.  Come to the quiet my friends, and trust God to do God’s new work in you.  May you be like Zechariah and Elizabeth this Advent season, waiting in silence until you believe and faith is reborn in you again.