"Be Strong"

Sermon preached by the Rev. Patte Henderson, December 30, 2018

Matthew 2: 13-23; Isaiah 63: 7-9

It is with joy that I am able to be with you, not only in the sanctuary for the entire

service but also in the pulpit today.  Since you are here, too, I assume this means

that you have survived your celebrations.  I hope they were quite “merry and


In the Matthew text that I just shared, we find God’s servant Joseph once again 

being visited by an angel of the Lord.  and once again he is being told to go on a

journey, this time to save his newborn son from Herod’s wrath and reach.  He

must once again leave the new country which he and Mary  journeyed to at

the whim of a king,  and this time flee to Egypt, a place he undoubtedly heard of

in Hebrew school as the evil place from which Moses saved God’s people.                          

Joseph’s reaction shows the brave courage and strength he mustered once again to obey God.

NOW Joseph knows that when an angel appears in his dreams, God is the source

of the message and Joseph need just to obey without question.  Does he know the

direction in which Egypt lies?  Does he know how long they must stay there? 

Does he know the language and social mores of the Egyptian people so that his

family may fit in to the culture?

All Joseph knows is that he must save his wife and newborn son no matter what.

The apostle Paul says, “Be strong.”  Paul says it to those who have received strength as he

himself received strength when the power of a new reality grasped him.  Now some of us will

ask,”…what about those who feel that we have NOT received this ability, and that we don’t

have faith and courage and strength and love?  We are wanting in all these, so that the

command “BE” by Paul is not said to us.  Or if it is said to us we remain unconcerned or

become hostile toward him.  We are not strong, so nobody should ask us to be strong!  We are

weak.  Shall we remain weak?  Shall we fall into resignation, and become cynical about this


Theologian Paul Tillich goes on to say that more people than we can imagine feel this way,

especially younger generations and retirees.  How can they be reached?  There is no magical

formula in scripture that tells us how to BE STRONG.  All we have are very normal characters

like Joseph, a carpenter in a small village in Judea, who, when visited in a dream by an angel

sent by God began to develop a strength he had no idea he had.  And toward the end of the

birth story of Jesus. Joseph is once again asked to do a new thing.

Little does Joseph know that by his actions 3 predictions of the Old Testament 

Prophets will be fulfilled.  By going to Egypt, the prophet Hosea’s words will come

true:  “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”  But in the Hosean text it seems the

prophecy is more about the Hebrew people and the son spoken of being Moses, and refers to

the exodus from Egypt.  This event weighs ever so much more in the history of our faith than

the story of one small family journeying home from a foreign land.

The second prophecy comes from Jeremiah; “ A voice was heard in Ramah,

wailing and loud lamentation.  Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be

consoled, because they are no more.”  While we can understand this referral to the mothers

of all children slain by King Herod, Jeremiah’s prophecies are known to be

in regard to the Hebrew people in captivity in Babylon.  How odd that Matthew should refer to

this one in the story of the Christ child.  We don’t hear many stories of weeping in the

scripture, perhaps the most poignant being the tears Jesus shed at the tomb of Lazarus late in

his ministry.

Then we have the third prophecy  which comes from the Book of Judges, a text regarded by

some as an extension of the Torah, the documentation of the early history of the people of

God.  The story of a “Nazirite” refers to God’s message to the mother of Samson, who was told

to not let her son’s hair be cut nor let her son drink wine or strong drink so that as a grown

man he would be an agent of God, a nazirite, when God’s people were Philistine captives.

It seems that these prophecies, remembered by Matthew in writing his gospel,

have been fulfilled , not only in the Old Testament but in the New Testament life of Jesus.  

I wonder if these, and other prophecies, continue to be fulfilled even in our own time.  Even

today we are called to be the children of God no matter where we call home.

Today families are persecuted for wanting a better life for their children,  and there is loud

weeping for refugee children who die while in captivity, or who are shot by figures of authority

at very little provocation, by  fellow Americans who supposedly value life.

Is it possible that these events might serve to give US strength to listen more attentively to

angels in our dreams who bring encouragement and direction for a path God is calling us to.

When the angel appears to let Joseph know that its safe to “go home”, he wonders where

“home “ is.  He knew going home to Judea was a poor idea, the danger was still too real.  The

angel told him to go to the area called Galilee, so he and Mary set up housekeeping in the

village of Nazareth.  Today, so many refugees around the world can not return to their homes. 

I wonder if a safe home will be found for all who just want to be safe and raise their families

with peace and joy.  What strength and courage that would take –  praying that every believer

would have the strength to fight the battle for equality for those with whatever walls

and prejudices we have.

God has a plan for each of us to listen, hear and learn in order to further God’s kingdom

with the work we are called to do.  There are thoughts and behaviors that are expected of us if

we want to be labeled as “Christian.”  Too many people use that description for themselves far

too casually.   How do you define this word when you use it to describe yourself?

In 2001, after 15 years of working as a Director of Christian Education in 3 different churches, I

felt called out of West Virginia to further my education.  If this idea came in a dream, I don’t

remember it, but the desire to learn more about all aspects of Christianity, including the

original languages of the scriptures became quite strong and even at age 52, I was

overwhelmed by the need to attend a seminary.

Perhaps one of the  “hints” that I felt came from the realization that there had to be a better

way of serving in pastoral ministry. 

I was tired of serving on church staffs where the senior pastor preached the love of Jesus

Christ on Sunday morning, but treated, not only the church staff but some parishioners with

cruelty and contempt.   By-the-way, Bill Lovin in NOT one of those pastors!

And frankly, I wanted to have a more diverse relationship with all the congregation and not be

seen as “just” the caretaker of the children (even when I worked with adult and youth


Ordination to the ministry of Word and Sacrament has required living out the answers to the

questions  asked during the ritual of Ordination.  I think I’ve fulfilled some of those ideals:

  1. I trust in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior
  2. I have sought to follow Jesus. Love my neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world
  3. I have served with energy, intelligence, imagination and love wherever God has called me to be.
  4. I have been a faithful minister, proclaiming the good news…teaching faith and caring for people.

But there are other responsibilities that I have not fulfilled so well.

You see, I met up with my very own King Herod, the leader of my denomination is this part of

Iowa, who with prejudice against women pastors and a failure on my part to properly “kiss

up” to his expectations, strove to force me from serving any church of my denomination.  With

the help of a few very unhappy and misguided souls in the church I was serving, who

didn’t understand the concept that being a follower of Christ meant a certain code of behavior

to live by, people who wanted to control how the pastor preached and led worship, I was

forced into my own exile, which happened to bring me to Iowa City.  What those folks didn’t

remember is that I am a child of God and once I was ordained to complete a ministry in the

name of Jesus Christ, they could really do me no permanent harm.  I know that my ordination

gave me the courage and strength I needed to stay on my knees in prayer, listening for where

the Spirit would lead me next, despite the sadness and tears that expressed my feelings of

failure at the moment.

So I have been “lead” to serve churches here in town as an assistant to the pastor of one

church and the director of education in 2 others.   I have never been without a congregation

where I can continue to tell the stories of God’s love through the life of Christ.   And

perhaps more importantly, I have been open to the Spirit’s guidance.  Why did I choose THIS

church to visit on the day it was announced that your Children’s Program Director had to quit? 

Why was I visiting a friend who was a patient at Mercy Hospital just as a chaplain came by and

heard me talking to that friend – I must have been using my extra-caring voice that day – so

that I was asked if I was clergy and would I be interested in being a chaplain there?

The Angel Gabriel told Joseph to NOT be afraid, to trust and to obey as he was told to.  In our

Nativity Pageant, we heard “Joseph’s Lullaby” so eloquently sung by Andrew Knapp.  In the

lullaby Joseph not only asks, “What kind of father will I be?” but also says “tell me how to

guide you.  Tell me what to say.  Tell me how to show you how to show the world the

way…when all I have to give you is love.”  Sometimes the best examples of strength in our

faith comes when we feel the weakest.

Like Joseph, all I’ve been able to do is trust and obey.  While Joseph may not have FELT strong

in the tasks he was assigned, he was determined to serve, to appear strong and then in the

end, demonstrating great strength of faith and obedience.  Paul Tillich believes

that strength requires great love that comes through acknowledgement  of weakness.

I made a commitment to Christ when I was ordained and His spirit has never let me down.  Not

only have I been able to teach the faith, I now have the opportunity to care intimately for

those who are ill and bedridden, physically out of strength and powerless to care for

themselves.  Yet so often I meet people of great faith who confess their faith is a sustaining

part of their lives.  

I hope to continue to be strong, fulfilling not only my ordination vows but Christ’s teachings to

love and be present for all His children.  The apostle Paul told the Corinthians to “…be

watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, BE STRONG.  Let all that you do be done in


I encourage you, too, to be strong, live your faith and love the Lord. 

Listen to the words of Howard Thurman in his poem, “The Work of Christmas:”

When the song of the angels is stilled,

When the star in the sky is gone.

When the kings and the princes are home,

When the shepherds are back with their flock,

The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost;

To heal the broken;

To feed the hungry,

To release the prisoner,

To rebuild the nations,

To bring peace among brothers and sisters,

To make music in the heart.


God bless each of you in this time of endings and beginnings.  Happy New Year!