Christmas Day Message: What’s Your Sign?, Luke 2:1-20

A sermon preached by Dr. Patrick H. Wrisley, December 25, 2022.

In the name of the One who is, who was, and is yet to come, good morning and merry Christmas!  This is a day the Lord has made, beloved, what shall we do in it? Rejoice and be glad in it! Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Luke 2:1-20

2.1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.[1]

Years ago, when I lived outside of Disney World in Celebration, Florida, I remember one Sunday morning in the Fall soon after we moved there looking up and seeing an airplane writing messages in the sky with smoke. First, the pilot would patiently make a large circular pass and make the letter C.  They then flew in from the other direction at a 90-degree angle and did a little dash across the C that made you stop and wonder what they were writing. Next, he would turn another 90 degrees and make another pass creating a vertical line attached first to the dash. Once the plan was gone, you could then make out the letter G.  Living near Disney, you never knew what people would write in the sky so you were compelled to wait until the mystery sky-writer was spelling out. After about five minutes, you could see the message in the sky over the Land of the Mouse: God is Love.  What I discovered was that there was some guy who took it upon himself to make a ministry of sky-writing Christian messages in the sky for the tourists at Disney.  Every few days or so the guy would fly over Disney and write brief Christian messages for those of us below. It was quite entertaining and quaint for a while.

Time passed by when the skies over southern Orlando near Disney began to have so much sky-writing that it started to look like there was aerial combat going on in the skies of southern Orange County.  Soon car dealers were scribbling their ads up there; then came the ads from Hooters along with Gentleman’s clubs vying for business.  It got to the point where you saw writing in the sky, you just quit bothering to look up and see what it was saying.  The skies became too crowded with conflicting and at times, contradictory messages.

This is what I fear is happening to the message of Christmas. The birth narratives have become too familiar to people in our culture. To others, they’ve become hackneyed – yes, Mary, Joseph, the angels and shepherds with cows lowing off in the distance are lovely quaint stories but they’ve really lost their meaning to me.  Christmas is all about buying gifts…isn’t it? Are we really, really celebrating Christmas anymore?

A recent story in the Atlantic magazine indicated, “Americans still love Christmas if not quite as much as they used to. In 1995, 96 percent celebrated the holiday, per Gallup; by 2019, that had dipped slightly, to 93 percent. What has changed significantly is the way people mark it. From 2005 to 2019, the portion of Americans who say their Christmas celebrations are “strongly religious” dropped from 47 percent to 35 percent.”[2] Gallup reports, “Conversely, among those who celebrate Christmas, 26% say their celebrations are “not too religious.” This represents an increase of 10 percentage points over the past decade and mirrors the percentage of Americans who say religion is “not very important” in their life.”[3]  So, if my math is correct, it means that of those in our country who are left, a rising percentage of roughly 40% of people polled are embracing the holiday season more than a true Christmas Season with that other 26% of the population who just don’t care at all about what Christmas is about. Let’s face it: The Bezos Cathedral of Amazon is racking up more than the Church is these days. 

Consequently, beloved, I want us to focus on the angel’s word to the shepherds in our Story today. In the midst of their ordinary, mundane routine, the angel appears and says, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12).  The shepherds had a sign given that drove them to check out this wild, outlandish claim and assertion of the angel.  It makes we want to us each of us:  What’s YOUR sign?

Growing up in the 1970s the popular line people asked was, “What’s your sign?” as they tried to get to know the personality of the person being questioned. They wanted to know what astrological symbol each of us is aligned with. If I was asked, I would reply that my sign is an Aries because I was born in April. This tells the other person that because my sign is Aries, the Ram, I am courageous, bold, take initiative, and am spontaneous. The social convention would then dictate I turn it around and ask them what their sign is thus helping the two of us to know if we are compatible.  The problem with astrological signs is they are always pointing to us. I don’t think this is what the angel had in mind. 

This Christmas, it’s my prayer that each of us become students of semiotics, that is, disciples who are about learning to look for and read the signs pointing to Jesus. Jose Riera describes semiotics this way. He writes, “Have you wondered why black is used traditionally as the color of mourning in most Western countries?  Or why the eagle symbolizes strength and power in various societies?”  In other words, what is the meaning behind the signs we have in our culture? Semiotics is the science of studying the signs – whether written, imaged, or any other way – and how they derived their particular meaning.[4]  Signs always point to something else, something larger. 

For people of faith, the child wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger points to the incredible news that God has bent the bow of time and has moved into the neighborhood to live among us, relate to and with us, provide opportunities for you and me to live and interact with him, and then are commissioned by the Lord to become living signs pointing to the real meaning of the baby and what Christmas is about. So when I as your preacher ask you, “What’s your sign?”, it is about you describing to me how are you ‘signing’ to those in your neighborhood that Christmas matters, that this baby in the straw means something.  What’s your sign beloved? How are you pointing to Jesus?

This morning, we had the privilege to participate and be pointed to Jesus and the plan of God for each of us and the church. In Baptism, Caryl and Lauren invited you and me to the grace and gift of God given to us in our baptism. Bert and Liam’s baptism reminds us that their baptisms point beyond themselves and we recognize how in their innocence and total helplessness, baptism is a gift of love given to them by God. Neither of these brothers has done anything to earn their adoption into God’s family, the Church. Their adoption into the family of God is offered to them freely. Their baptism is a sign for each of us in the Church that we have a responsibility to walk alongside these boys, alongside their incredibly gifted and wonderful mommas, and teach them the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

On a deeper level, their baptisms are signs that point to the larger reality that if Christmas has lost its mojo to the people in the world, if Christmas has been replaced with shopping, and partying, and is now a reflection of culture rather than Jesus, then it’s a sign to us we need to be doing a better job of pointing the way to Jesus for others to follow.  Liam and Bert’s baptisms are signs that point to God’s unfathomable love and desire for us to welcome Jesus into the neighborhoods where we live and work. 

The baby in the manger is a sign of God’s incredible love and hope for you and for me. The question I want to haunt us in the coming days is what sign is my life, your life pointing to that we actually believe and hope in this Christmas miracle? Pray with me.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] “The War on Christmas is Winning. The holiday is becoming a less religious occasion for millions of Americans”, by David A. Graham, The Atlantic Magazine, December 23, 2022, at 7:00 a.m. Accessed 12/23/ 2022 at

[3] “More Americans Celebrating a Secular Christmas”, by Zach Hrynowski, December 20, 2022. See

[4] José J. Riera, Semiotic Theory, PressBooks. Theoretical Models for Teaching and Research. Accessed on 12/23/2022 at

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Advent #4: What Does Joseph’s Announcement Mean For You? Matthew 1:18-25

All the little open windows on our Advent calendars are beginning to show that there are not many days left before Christmas! We find ourselves on the last Sunday of Advent with all four candles on the wreath lit leaving only the solitary Christ Candle in the middle waiting for its turn. Even our scripture texts are taking a more specific tack toward Christmas-sounding stories. Finally, we’re talking about the baby!

As you turn to Matthew’s gospel, it’s interesting to note how each of the four Gospels describes the birth of Jesus. They each report it from a different point of view and perspective. For example, Mark doesn’t talk about Jesus’ birth at all. His story begins, “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” and immediately launches into stories of John the Baptist in the wilderness.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have John’s Gospel which doesn’t talk about Jesus’ birth directly but takes us back to before the Creation of time and space itself before the Big Bang. He doesn’t describe Jesus’ birth so much as he describes how Jesus, the eternal Logos, was a part of giving birth to all that ever was and is.

Now, Luke’s Gospel account of the birth narratives is the most elaborate of all of them.  He spends just shy of two chapters worth of material to painstakingly describe every detail about Jesus’ birth. Luke’s version focuses its attention on several angel appearances and the women Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth. John the Baptist’s daddy, Zechariah, gets more airplay than Jesus’ daddy, Joseph does. We hear about shepherds and cattle lowing in the distance. And that leads us to our text in Matthew this morning. We will begin with verse 1:18. Matthew, you’ll notice, says very little about Mother Mary but builds his Story around Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph. Hear the Word of the Lord.

Matthew 1:18-25

1.18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23“ Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”[1]

Mathew’s version of things is more down to earth and, in some ways, the most believable of the birth accounts. An angel appears to an artisan-class peasant, not in grandiose flashes of light but very subtlety in a dream. Now which one of us here hasn’t had a dream where we felt we have been given some kind of message? The announcement comes to a working-class man whose very life is immediately thrown into angst and chaos. We get the notion that Joseph’s life was rocking along normally like yours and mine. He works hard. He has paid Mary’s father a dowry to secure her to be his wife when she reaches a certain age. All that’s left for Joseph to do is to work hard, save some money, and plan for a future with his fiancé; it all sounds like so many young couples I counsel who are planning for their life together. They have a plan and are working on the plan. All that’s left to do is find the place to hold the reception and get the right caterer! But then, as John Lennon reportedly once said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re making other plans.”

The lives of a simple carpenter and an unsuspecting teenage girl are thrown into crisis. Now, Joseph, the carpenter has a fiancé’ who is going to be an unwed mother of a child that is not even his! Can you imagine the tremors of anxiety all this would cause in the first century?

As a result of no fault of his own, people of that day would see that Joseph had the proverbial bait and switch pulled on him. “Little Mary is pregnant? How could her father do that to Joseph?” Not only that, if Joseph isn’t the daddy, well who is? Who has Mary been hanging around with? If word gets out that she is pregnant and Joseph isn’t the father, Mary could, by Mosaic law be taken outside the village and stoned.

Poor Joseph. Yes, Mary is also in a pickle, but she gets all the attention in scripture. Joseph, however, now has all the weight of responsibility to figure out what to do. Just when his business is taking off, bam! His fiancé’ is pregnant! What does that mean for Joseph’s reputation as a good, Law-abiding Jew? We need to remember Joseph holds in his hands the power to move the Divine Story forward, or he can literally kill the Story right then and there by reporting Mary to priests. All this responsibility is thrust on him; the Story’s continuation rests on his shoulders. What does he do? Was his dream the real deal, an actual epiphany from God, or was it the result of some bad mutton he ate earlier in the evening?

Think about it: Joseph could have said “no.” He could have ignored the dreams. He could publicly humiliate Mary. He could demand his dowry to her father be returned. Mary could’ve been stoned for adultery. Joseph could have called the baby, Norman.  Good old church-going regular Joe has his life turned upside down and has to carefully weigh the decisions that need to be made. They are decisions that will impact his family, her family, their village, as well as their synagogue. His ultimate decisions affect us as well.

Beloved, this is where you and I can pause and learn something. Amid the storm Mary and Joseph find themselves in, we learn that God has already been at work to fix the problem (In fact, for God it wasn’t a problem at all!). Unbeknownst to them, God has quietly worked to set the stage for Jesus to be born. For whatever reason, God has chosen this unlikely couple to be the parents of Immanuel. Life is complicated and it’s complicated for everybody, even the Holy Family! Just because they are the Holy Family does not exempt them from the hard realities, complexities, and complications of life. We all have them, even Mary and Joseph. And it’s right here, beloved, we are reminded that just like you and me, Joseph had to step out and express his faith in God; in all that which was risky, unbelievable, and scandalous, Joseph stepped out in faith trusting God would do what God said.

Stepping out in blind faith is risky. There are repercussions if Joseph didn’t follow the angel’s directions and there were consequences if he did. The former would lead to the death of a teenage girl and her unborn child. The latter, expressed in faith, would bring life, not only for the baby but for the Holy Family’s life together and for the world. God’s plan for our salvation had to pass through a peasant man’s spiritual character and faith. Mary gave birth to Jesus. Joseph gave birth to the opportunity that Jesus would be born into a loving family who was not exempt from the world’s everyday problems.

Friends, when has God spoken with you? What plan of salvation does God have in store that must pass through your spiritual character?

“Preacher, God’s never spoken to me! I don’t hear little voices in my head!”

Beloved, they don’t have to be little voices in our heads. God speaks to all of us all the time if we would only, like Joseph, listen and respond faithfully. God speaks quietly to each of us through dreams, through a crisis we undergo, through illness, and through a loved one’s death. God speaks to each of us through the words of a song or scripture that is read and heard. God speaks to us when we encounter someone who is physically or emotionally broken, who is homeless, or who is hungry. The question for us is will we listen and step out in faith to respond thereby opening the door for mighty works and miracles of God to take place as a result of our expressed faith?

In my Advent waiting, I’ve come to realize you and I are being called to do the same works Immanuel is doing. Jesus is born to save people from their sins. When we step out in faith like Joseph, we are called to do the same.

Now the power of the words “save” and “sins” has been diminished in America; they’ve become overly spiritualized to the point we fail to grasp their original meanings. We have shrunk their meaning down to simply gaining our personal salvation and understanding sin as something I, or even better, what you do wrong!  Beloved, Jesus’ work is so much larger than that.

Mrs. Richter was my old high school English teacher, and she would remind us that when we go to the dictionary, the most common definition of a word appears first and the least common use for that word is listed last. Well, I did some poking around in the Greek dictionary, and let me tell you what I found. The word salvation means first and foremost to keep something or someone safe, to rescue from danger, or to make well or heal, and bring back to wholeness. The last definition in the Greek dictionary says it means to deliver from sin’s penalties. Now, the word sin means literally to be without, to have a share in, to miss the mark or goal, to miss or wander off the right path. The fifth definition means to wander from God’s Law. Beloved, only Jesus can address the last definitions of sin and salvation; only he can heal us from our sins’ penalties, but the deal is that you and I have the first four definitions of salvation and sin we can actively work on. We have the responsibility to bring, healing and wholeness to people or systems that are broken. You and I have the responsibility to uncover ethical injustices in our society where people, businesses, or government institutions have gone off their intended path.

Joseph, Church, shows us what God-honoring character looks like. It’s listening for God’s voice and then acting upon what we hear to help others get back on the right path to bring health and wholeness. Over the next days of Advent, Church, I want you to listen for God’s voice speaking to you as it spoke to Joseph. How is God calling you to step out and into chaotic waters demonstrating your faith like Joseph did? What plan does God have for you to work out in your own life?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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What did you expect to see, anyway? Matthew 11:2-11

A sermon preached by Patrick H. Wrisley on December 11, 2022, the Third Sunday in Advent, Year A

On this third, Sunday of Advent, the lectionary plunks us down in the middle of Matthew’s gospel far away from the Stories of Jesus’ impending birth with all the angels, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and the cattle lowing off in the distance somewhere. Why is this?

It’s helpful to remember that the first two Sundays in our advent preparations focus upon the future coming of Jesus at the culmination of time when he comes again in judgment. The last two Sundays in Advent zero in on Jesus’ initial coming to us through his birth.  In particular, the third Sunday in Advent is known as Joy Sunday and the scripture passages focus on John the Baptist and how he is the one who prepares the way for the coming Messiah. As you listen to the text, keep in mind that John the Baptist and Jesus are blood cousins and have known one another nigh thirty years. John passionately preached how he was preparing the people of Israel for the coming Messiah and the upcoming Judgement the Messiah would bring. As John delicately puts it in Matthew 3:10: The ax is already at the foot of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

We might say that John the Baptist might not be the first one you invite to a Christmas party because his tone is a wee bit Debbie-downerish. The Baptist had a very focused and narrow understanding of what the Messiah would and should be doing. For John, the Messiah would be a powerful political figure and commander who would rally the Jewish people back to become a sovereign nation once more; it would again be a holy and pietistic nation living out the Law of God casting holy judgment upon those who didn’t. Now, this is the last we hear of John in Matthew’s gospel until today’s text Matthew 11:2-11. As you listen, hear if you can pick up a twinge of buyer’s remorse from John’s words. One gets the impression that the Messiah he introduced in chapter 3 was not living up to his expectations. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.[1]

Expectations versus reality. It’s when we manufacture in our minds the way things or people are supposed to turn out or be and but then they don’t match our expected desires. There’s a gap between what’s expected and what’s reality. Like Clark Griswold and his family driving across the country excitedly going to Wally World, they arrive only to discover it’s closed. Our Story this morning is laced with misplaced perceived expectations and hard realities. It sets us up for the subliminal questions we are asked to wrestle with from our text: What are our expectations of this coming Messiah? Who or what do we expect to see, visit, or meet on Christmas morning? Do we expect anything to even happen at all on Christmas Day, for that matter?

First, there are John’s expectations of Jesus. John has been arrested by King Herod because John had the audacity to publicly call Herod out for sleeping with Herod’s brother’s wife. For John, his ministry was check-mated and all he could do is languish in prison and hope God would make good on his promises to separate the good wheat (insert, repentant, contrite Jews) from the chaff (i.e., the unrepentant Jews and Gentiles) and burn the chaff in unquenchable fire (Mat. 3. 12). Unfortunately, these were not the reports John was hearing about.

Since we last saw John in Matthew 3, Jesus has begun his ministry and has been tempted by Satan to use his power and status as the Son of God to achieve earthly power and dominion; in so many words, Jesus tells the devil, “Get a life” and then proceeds to lay out a template for how the people of God are to live with one another; we call those the Beatitudes.  The people of God are not to be perusing power but are blessed when they are poor in spirit, meek, or persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

Furthermore, Jesus as Messiah was not confronting and hobnobbing with the political powerbrokers trying to rest power from them; on the contrary, in the first 12 chapters of Matthew Jesus is hanging out with the community’s outcasts and dejected ones. Instead of debating Herod in the palace, Jesus is moving among the people out in the countryside, in the backwater places of Palestine with the poor, the sick, the diseased, the foreigner, the prostitutes, and the crooks. He is living a Messiahship of grace and inclusion whereas John was expecting a Messiahship that would usher in the separation and exclusion of all those sinful people. So, he sends his disciples to see if Cousin Jesus is bona fide.  Is Jesus really the one or was the Baptist to look for another, because quite honestly, Jesus doesn’t seem to be fitting the bill at all. You can almost hear a tinge of disappointment in John’s questions. Jesus was not fulfilling the Baptist’s expectations of Messiah. “Are you the one or are we to be looking for someone else?”

Now Jesus when confronted with these questions could have thrown his cousin John under the bus and replied, “WHAT!? Someone ELSE?! Why, you go tell John, ‘Who has made you judge and jury of my Messiahship?!’”  No, Jesus doesn’t do that. He takes John in his own expectations and then reframes them for his cousin. “Tell my cousin John what you yourselves see and hear: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and poor souls are being evangelized.”

What you and I miss with Jesus’ response is that he is quoting prophetic Hebrew scripture from Isaiah 35 and 61. Jesus is telling John’s disciples to go back and tell John what they are personally, experientially, encountering when they are around Jesus. Jesus is subtly reminding John, “Cuz, you expected me to do that, but God wants me to do this. My goal, God’s goal, is to love people into the Kingdom and make the circle of fellowship ever wider and larger. John, I know you had your expectations of me and what I was to do but your expectations are too small. My expectations include a greater, larger, more inclusive vision.”

Yet, John was not the only one who had his expectations broken. It seems the crowds with Jesus also had their own expectations about who and what John the Baptist, the one who is to prepare for the Messiah’s way, was to be. In rapid-fire succession, Jesus addresses the crowd’s expectations of John: What did y’all come out and expect to see? A mealy-mouthed, wimpy prophet and preacher? John is a spiritual giant! Did you expect to see a fashion show of finely dressed traveling evangelists? Did you expect to see someone like the Old Testament prophets? Let me tell you, John’s not only a prophet but he was prophesied about by those Old Testament prophets! No one like him has ever been born but he is the least of all people in the Kingdom of Heaven.

It seems everyone has their own opinion and expectation, about the way things should be. We are no different, really. We come to Church and pray at home with an image and expectation of who God is and what God should do about “those” people. We have our own expectations of who Jesus is and how he is to respond to us and our questions, problems, and issues. We have our own expectations of who is worthy of God’s love and who is not. We have our own expectations of how our religious leaders are to act, dress, and behave. We are human beings, and we bring our emotionally, socially, culturally, and spiritually infused expectations based upon our own personal and corporate histories to bear on how we see Jesus, God, and what we expect God to do in our lives.

Beloved, what are your expectations of Jesus? What do you expect God to do for you? What are the expectations you place upon your own spiritual leaders? What are your expectations for Christmas Day? Is it about gifts, a big meal, hanging out with family and friends, or is it about new life, new birth?

As we make our way through Advent, let’s do a few things. First, ask yourself if you have any expectations for Christmas Day. If not, why not? Next, ask yourself if the expectations you have placed upon Jesus, God, are realistic or do they reflect your own emotional, political, or cultural agenda. If so, how do they and how are they either in line with or contrary to the values of God expressed in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5? Finally, ask yourself if your expectations of Jesus are too small like John the Baptist’s were. If they are, what’s the largest, most fantastic image of Jesus’ vision and ministry you can imagine? Now, ask how you are going to play a part in making his vision a reality? 

Today is Joy Sunday because today, we celebrate that our expectations of God are so much smaller than they truly are, and Jesus asks us to expect more out of him than we ever imagined. I close with a prayer the great Reformed theologian, Karl Barth, wrote in his book, Fifty Prayers, regarding Advent. Let’s pray:

Lord, may you now let us this year once more approach the light, celebration, and joy of Christmas Day that brings us face to face with the greatest thing there is: your love, with which you so loved the world that you gave your only Son, so that all of us may believe in him and therefore not be lost, but may have eternal life.[2]

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So be it.

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Fifty Prayers by Karl Barth,

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The Pastoral Prayer from Sunday, December 4, 2022

Prince of Peace and Lord of Lords, we join our voices with all Creation and sing to proclaim your glory. From the very foundation of our world, you have passionately pursued your people with purpose, intentionality, forgiveness, and peace. It is during this moment of worship we stop, become still, and await to be embraced by you!

Dearest Father, we pray you will breathe into your Church and bestow upon us your Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, power for executing justice, knowledge, righteousness, faithfulness, and holy awe and wonder. Remind us these gifts are the way the Church with never-ending centrifugal circles of love, forgiveness, and grace brings about the possibility that the wolf and the leopard will live with the lambs and the goats, that cows, bears, and lions will live in peace and harmony showing us the way, and that your knowledge will flood over all the Earth! Instill upon your people a heart for holy righteousness that we will be seen as the executors of your divine justice to the least of these. Let your Church be a Presence of Christ in this world to the poor, the shattered, the abused, the hungry, and the neglected children and elderly in our midst. Most of all, let us be agents of Peace.

Jesus, breathe peace into our world and lives. We pray for peace for those countries and people caught up in war. Bring peace to those who live in fear of abuse or exploitation. Bring peace to the troubled souls struggling with addictions and to their families trying to care for them. Lord of all nations, crush our tendencies to scapegoat and discriminate against “those people” who are socially, economically, racially, ethnically, and politically different from us. Open each of our eyes to behold the entire family of God who comprise our fellow brothers and sisters.

Spirit, we lift up prayers for our troubled world and its economy. Convict our political leaders to settle for nothing less than the truth and maintain this democracy of 246 years. Let those with medical diagnoses and problems feel your healing presence deep within them. Remind the grieving of the grand Easter reality.

Giver of all gifts, we thank you for the ability to turn a knob and clean water pours out. For doctors, nurses, and technicians who are skilled in healing our broken bodies and hearts. We thank you for the food we eat and the bounty we have. For shelter and comforts of home and fellowship. And thank you for this, our church – for her leadership and staff, its ministry in our community and beyond, and for the financial means to actively be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ to a broken, hurting swirly world.

Hear us, Holy Trinity, as we weave our prayers with the prayers from saints all over the world as we pray, Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil, for Thine is the Kingdom, the honor, the glory forever and ever! Amen!

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Whatever you do, don’t hit the snooze button! Matthew 24:36-44

A sermon delivered by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min., on November 27, 2022, Advent 1, Year A

Gather around and let me tell you a Christmas story! It’s from Matthew 24:36-44.  Listen carefully!

Matthew 24:36-44

36“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.44Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.[1]

            How’s that for a scripture text to get you ready for Christmas! It seems a little odd to begin this season of preparation by looking at what many people call, The Rapture, but this is where we start our journey. Episcopal priest and author, Fleming Rutledge, reminds us that this season of Advent forces us to look at God through the lenses of the past, the present, and the future. She reminds us, that “Advent calls for a life lived on the edge all the time, shaped by the cross not only on Good Friday but whoever and whenever we are, proclaiming his death to the be the turn of the ages “until he comes again.”” [2] The first Sunday in Advent begins by looking into the imminent future when Jesus comes again in judgment.

            Alas, people in Church today really don’t like to talk about God’s judgment; it sounds so harsh and very un-good-newsy. But beloved, we need to pause and remember that when the season of Advent asks us to remember the coming judgment of God, it’s always on the Sunday when the Church lights the candle of hope! For some reason, we have translated ‘judgment’ to mean ‘condemnation’ thereby losing all concept of hope. Think about it: Who is hopeful for being condemned?

            Rutledge writes, “The Christian hope is founded on the promise of God that all things will be made new according to his righteousness. All references to judgment in the Bible should be understood in the context of God’s righteousness – not just his being righteous but his ‘making right’ all that has been wrong.”[3] Consequently, Advent is the season of the church year we remind ourselves that Immanuel, God-with-us, whom we celebrate on Christmas Day is the one and the same Divine Logos who stands at both the beginning of time as well as its end. Advent is a time for us to honestly remember that all of God’s creation, all our concept of time, is lovingly embraced and encircled by the loving arms of Christ and for that, we are hopeful.

            Stephen Covey made famous the line that in order to live a successful and productive life, we need to begin our planning with the end in mind. We are to begin remembering that our lives, our time, are moving to history’s denouement when God will make all things new and redeem all that is full of sorrow, brokenness, and pain and replace them with faith, hope, and love. English playwright, critic, and poet, W. H. Auden, refers to Advent, as this time of waiting, The Time Being, when you and I are awaiting the return of the Child Immanuel. He writes, “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.”[4]

            This Time Being is what Jesus is speaking of today in Matthew 24. We tend to forget that when Jesus is speaking of the future time of judgment, he uses it as a foil for his disciples to reflect upon their lives at the moment, in the current Time Being.

            So, Jesus talks about the days of Noah before the great flood when people were eating and drinking, getting married, and living life when, after ignoring Noah’s call to prepare for the coming flood, were all swept away.  Eating, drinking, and getting married are mentioned to remind us that in the midst of our everyday life, at a time least expected, God returns and shouts, “Honey, I’m home!”

            Jesus then goes on to share how men and women will be about their everyday routines of going to work and doing their chores when suddenly, “one will be taken and the other will be left.” Those people who are taken to appear before the judgment seat of Christ are not judged by whether a person believed the right things about God with correct doctrine but each person will be measured by the standard of how well we loved God and our neighbor as we have loved ourselves. It’s the rubric Jesus set in John 15.[5]  The rapture, as it is popularly called and so grossly misunderstood, is not so much about personal piety as it is about our personal and social ethics; in other words, are we loving others as God is loving us?

            One commentator wrote, “Believers are judged not so much by how well they are prepared to enter heaven but by how much they have been attending to the concerns of others in the community. Along those lines, discipleship is not an event or a phase but a constant state of being prepared and committed to fellow humans.”[6] Once again, we are reminded of Auden’s understanding of our Time Being. How are we living our lives with love and justice in our time of simply being ourselves in our everyday hum-drum of eating, drinking, getting married, working the farm, or preparing food for dinner?

            Our focus this month in spiritual formation is called, Advent in Plain Sight. We have study guides available for you if you would like them as well as daily devotionals for each day in Advent written by your fellow brothers and sisters of First Pres. Advent in Plain Sight is designed for us to look at everyday objects and note how they remind us of what this season is about. So, for example, at Wednesday Night Live, we will be looking at items such as a belt, a tree, and even a tear and see how these everyday items can become icons, i.e. signs pointing to deeper advent reality of Jesus coming into the world. As I was thinking about this morning’s message, the item, icon that our scripture lifts up as an everyday reminder to prepare for Jesus’ coming is a plain old alarm clock. An alarm clock. A loud, obnoxious alarm clock.

            Years ago, someone gave me a giant Harley Davidson wall clock. Each hour was represented by a picture of a different type of vintage Harley motorcycle. The beauty of this magnificent clock is that a loud revving motorcycle engine would be the chime for each hour! All day long, Harleys were roaring through the entire office area. Personally, I loved it but my other colleagues – well, not so much. I knew it was time to get rid of it when during one emotional pastoral counseling session as this woman was pouring her heart out about her husband’s affair and their impending divorce, the hour ‘chimed’ at the worst possible moment of her story.

            Twice in three verses, Jesus reminds the disciples to keep awake. Stay alert and ready. Set your alarm to get yourself out of bed because the Lord is coming at an hour we do not know or expect. Dale Bruner, a retired professor at Whitworth University says two Protestant Reformers remind Christian disciples to be awake. John Calvin said, “Jesus wished them (the disciples) to be so uncertain of his coming that from day to day they should be intently waiting.” Bruner then cites Martin Luther who quipped that Christians should live as if Jesus died this morning, risen this afternoon, and was coming this evening.

            Jesus is asking us to wake up and stay alert. He is asking us to be ready for the time he comes in judgment. He is telling us he is coming again and as such it gives us hope. Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense who had a way with words tried to say the same thing Jesus was saying at an intelligence briefing during the Iraq War. He said, “As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”[7]

            Personally, I think Jesus said it better. Jesus says, “Church, don’t you dare hit the snooze button because God is coming. This you know. You just don’t know when. So, wake up and be alert!”

            Beloved, this is a text of great hope. God is coming again and will welcome us home for good. Yes, there will be judgment but not condemnation. There will be a review of how we spent our Time Being awake. Are our Advent preparations getting caught up in the gross commercialization of the season, or are we preparing for our Lord’s return with lives full of justice and mercy to those we rub shoulders with every single day? In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So be it.

© 2022 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and may not be altered, re-purposed, published, or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] Fleming Rutledge, Advent. The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 7.

[3] Ibid, 23.

[4] W.H. Auden, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. See Accessed 11/23/2022.

[5] John 15:12-17: 12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command.15 I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. 17 This is my command: Love each other. (NIV)

[6] Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: Year A, Volume 1, Advent through Epiphany by Joel B. Green, Thomas G. Long, et al.

[7] Feasting on the Gospels–Matthew, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary by Cynthia A. Jarvis, E. Elizabeth Johnson

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