The Fire Before the Finish

“The Fire Before the Finish”
December 06, 2015
(Second Sunday of Advent)
By John Partridge

Scripture:  Malachi 3:1-4    Philippians 1:3-11     Luke 3:1-6

This morning we are going to begin by filling in the missing words from some well known, and some lesser known, sayings.
1) When we suspect that something is wrong we have said, “Where there’s smoke there’s ______.”

2) The leader of the 21 gun salute said, “Ready, Aim, ________.”

3) The coach was disappointed by how his team was performing. He said that he needed to “Light a ______ under them.

4) The famous baseball player, Ty Cobb, once said, “I never could stand losing. Second place didn’t interest me. I had a ______ in my belly.”

5) Bernard Williams said, “Talent is a flame. Genius is a ______.”

6) Mae West said, “A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald but if he has ____, women will like him.”

7) Finally, President Richard Nixon once said, “The finest steel has to go through the hottest _____.

If it isn’t obvious by now, the answer to all of these was “fire.”

But on almost all of these, fire is the thing that happens at the beginning. Fire is the creator of smoke, the fire is what makes the gun go “boom,” fire is what motivates athletes, geniuses, and dumpy bald men. But President Nixon was in the right ballpark for today’s scripture because in Malachi 3:1-4, God warns his people that when the Messiah comes, things are going to get hot.

3:1 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

In a prophecy that describes the coming of the Messiah, we see that Jesus is the messenger that we desire, and Jesus is the rescuer and redeemer that we have been looking forward to seeing, but when he comes, not everyone will be happy about it. Malachi tells us that his coming will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will be the one who drives out the impurities but the process of refining silver or gold is to place them in a fire until they melt and keep them there until the impurities float to the top. For the people of God, the fire didn’t happen at the beginning of the story, it comes at the end. It is after we have been refined that God will find our offerings to be acceptable because it is then that righteous men and women will bring them.

And so, as we celebrate Advent, we remember that life isn’t always going to be easy. God isn’t always going to let things go our way. Sometimes, when we feel like we are in the fire, we are. And we are there because God intends to drive off some of our impurities.

Not surprisingly, we hear echoes of this in the Christmas story as well. Reading from Luke 3:1-6, we hear these words:

3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.
5 Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
the rough ways smooth.
6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”

I want to point out that God found John in the wilderness. God didn’t wait for John to be doing something important. God didn’t wait until John came to the Temple in Jerusalem to call him. God called John from where he was, at the moment that he was needed. And when God called, only then did John leave where he was and go into the countryside to preach.

From time to time, each of us may feel that we are in the wilderness. We may feel that we aren’t doing anything important or we might feel that we are far from home, or away from the hustle and bustle, or away from the places where important people gather. But Luke’s message is that when God is ready, he will find us no matter where we are.

The second point that we should take from this passage is that John’s entire mission was to prepare for the coming of the Messiah by proclaiming a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John was the one who was “preparing the way” for the arrival of Jesus.

Today, we are in John’s place.

Today, we have been given John’s mission.

As we celebrate Advent, we are reminded that today, we are called to prepare the way for the arrival of the Messiah, Jesus.

To do that, there is something that we must do. We must do as John preached; we must repent of our sins (and remember that ‘repent’ means to turn around, to change directions, and go another way) and we must prepare our hearts for the arrival of the Prince of Peace.

In Philippians 1:3-11, Paul reveals even more of this fundamental principle and why our season of preparation is important.

3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Paul reminds the followers of Jesus that God has begun doing something amazing in their lives. God himself has begun doing something good in each of us and we, like Paul, are confident that if God has begun something, he will surely continue doing it until that thing is finished.

And so, let us remember these things:

Remember that life isn’t always easy, but it may well be that, in the hardest times, when we feel like we are in the furnace surrounded by fire, God is refining us so that we may be, in the end, purer and more beautiful than ever before.

Remember that Advent is the season of preparation. Let us repent of our sins and prepare our hearts for the coming of the Prince of Peace.
Remember that we have inherited the mission of John the Baptist and are called, from wherever we are, to proclaim the coming of the redeemer and rescuer of humanity.

And as we do these things, remember that God is working in each of us so that we might love more, know more, see more, understand more, so that we can make better choices and become more righteous. Paul’s desire, and ours, is to become pure and blameless on the Day of Judgment but, moreover, that we will become so much like Jesus, that we will live our lives like Jesus and pour out God’s love into the world around us.

Submission and Service

“Submission and Service”
October 18, 2015
By John Partridge

Scripture:  Job 38:1-7, 34-41               Hebrews 5:1-10                     Mark 10:35-45
What’s the first thing that comes into your head when I say the word, ‘submission?’

In today’s usage of the English language, the word ‘submission’ comes to us loaded with a lot of negative baggage. My best guess is that this is largely because of our battle with slavery in American history. There are likely also negative associations with military history where submission of is associated with surrender. While we often use the word ‘submit’ in a variety of perfectly innocent ways (we submit payments, we submit resumes and applications) whenever we talk about human submission, eyebrows are raised, heads turn, and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. If you think I am exaggerating, just wait until someone in church starts a conversation about wives submitting to their husbands, slaves (or employees) submitting to their masters, or discussing what it really means to submit to Caesar. Submission is one of those places where us freedom loving, fiercely independent Americans automatically resist, even if that submission makes complete sense.

Another word that we struggle with, though admittedly not with nearly the same ferocity, is the word ‘service.” Service is just too similar and too connected to that of ‘servant’ and although we don’t occasionally mind serving one another, or serving guests, we resist the idea of being labelled as servants.

But despite our reluctance and resistance to use these two words, this morning we are going to spend some time understanding them a little better. We begin in Job 38:1-7, 34-41 but you need to remember where we left off last week. Last week we heard Job boldly proclaim his desire to get in God’s face, to proclaim his innocence, and demand justice. While we know that Job was completely innocent and that even God considered him to be upright and blameless, it is at this point that Job’s boldness went too far. God comes to Job but his answers are not at all the kind that Job was expecting.

1 Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

2 “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?
3 Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
6 On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—
7 while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

34 “Can you raise your voice to the clouds and cover yourself with a flood of water?
35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’?
36 Who gives the ibis wisdom or gives the rooster understanding?
37 Who has the wisdom to count the clouds? Who can tip over the water jars of the heavens
38 when the dust becomes hard and the clods of earth stick together?
39 “Do you hunt the prey for the lioness and satisfy the hunger of the lions
40 when they crouch in their dens or lie in wait in a thicket?
41 Who provides food for the raven when its young cry out to God and wander about for lack of food?

God’s response to Job’s boldness is to take him out to the woodshed and give him a whooping. And what we read isn’t even half of what God had to say. God’s answer is, “Who are you to question me?” God is so far above Job that it is as if an ant demanded to know why you mowed your lawn, or if an Army recruit demanded that the President of the United States explain why he had to wear a uniform. The difference between God and Job in intelligence, understanding, strength, power, and authority is so gigantic that Job’s only legitimate response is… submission.

When finally confronted by God, Job must admit that he is not in a position to demand anything at all. He must surrender to the will of God.

Similarly, not long after Jesus explains to the disciples that they will be rewarded for what they have given up to follow Jesus, James and John come to him asking for even more. Many of the disciples were convinced that Jesus was going to overthrow the government, throw out the Roman army, and be crowned as king over all of Israel. James and John are clearly included in this group (which was probably all of the disciples) and, completely ignoring the fact that Jesus has just told them that persecution would be a part of their reward, they are looking forward to how they will personally benefit when Jesus becomes king. (Mark 10:35-45)

35 Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.”

36 “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.

37 They replied, “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.”

38 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said. “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

39 “We can,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with, 40 but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared.”

41 When the ten heard about this, they became indignant with James and John. 42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In this passage, is as statement that runs absolutely counter to everything that our culture tells us, and nearly contrary to human nature: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” Our culture teaches us to pursue dominance, look out for number one, to climb the ladder of success even if we have to climb over our friends, family and coworkers to get there. Human nature and our natural competitive spirit often motivate us to see leadership and greatness as a competition that we need to win, and to win means that we have to defeat someone else.

But Jesus defines greatness in an altogether different way.

For Jesus, leadership starts with service instead of dominance or competition. Real leaders don’t “look out for number one,” they look out for the people on the bottom. Real leaders don’t climb over other people, they lift other people up. Winning doesn’t mean defeating someone else, winning means building up everyone else on your team so that the entire team can be successful.

As he often does, Jesus stands conventional wisdom on its head.

How would it look if a corporation, or any employer, spent as much time focusing on how to serve their employees as they did trying to make a profit? I’m not saying that profit isn’t important, but wouldn’t the world be a different place if employers saw their employees as masters to be served rather than resources to be exploited?

Even Jesus is not exempt from this new, radical, and transformational leadership formula. Jesus said, “…even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus himself, as the King of kings and Leader of leaders, must therefore, become the servant of everyone. And he does. But Jesus’ service to his people goes even farther than that. In Hebrews 5:1-10, Paul fleshes out this idea of Jesus’ servanthood.

5:1 Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. 2 He is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and are going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness. 3 This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. 4 And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was.

5 In the same way, Christ did not take on himself the glory of becoming a high priest. But God said to him,

“You are my Son; today I have become your Father.”

6 And he says in another place,

You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

7 During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8 Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered 9 and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him 10 and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Jesus has been called to be more than just a servant. Paul says that Jesus has also been selected to be our high priest, which means that he is our liaison, our intermediary, between us and God. Jesus is our representative, our ambassador on behalf of humanity, in the throne room of God. His job is to be compassionate with those who make mistakes because they didn’t know any better and to gently guide those who are wandering off in the wrong direction. Jesus’ job is to serve all of those who serve God in addition to offering himself as the sacrifice for our sins. What’s more, Jesus hasn’t just been appointed as our high priest for a year or two, or even for a thousand years, but he has been appointed as a priest in the order of Melchizedek.

Say what?

Melchizedek. This is one of those weird names, and odd titles, that pop up in scripture that we really don’t understand without a little more background. In these cases, having a Bible with good footnotes can be invaluable to your understanding. Basically, this is a historical reference to a traditional Jewish story. Melchizedek is a priest of God who appears exactly once in the Old Testament but Jewish tradition held that since he was only heard from once, and never mentioned again, it was because he never died. From that tradition grew a literary usage that referred to him as a way of talking about things that never end. Saying that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek is a way of saying that Jesus will never die and his priesthood will never end.

So what Paul is saying is that Jesus came to earth to offer himself in our place as a sacrifice for our sins, and then became our representative, our ambassador, before God, to spend himself in the service of God’s servants, and to serve both God and humanity forever without end.

As we are called to serve others, we are reminded that once again, Jesus is our role model.

We are called to be servants so that we can serve the King of kings, the Lord of lords, and the Servant of servants.

Job realized that submission was his only reasonable option and his submission was the beginning of his restoration.

The prayers of Jesus were heard because of his reverent submission to God.

The lesson we must learn is this:

When we are called to God’s mission, we must submit to God and serve others.

The Call of Pain

The Call of Pain
(or, A 2×4 to the Head)
Ohio Northern University Chapel Service
September 24, 2015

Ohio Northern – The Call of Pain

This week, as you continue hearing a series of messages that build your understanding of “The Call” of God, Chaplain MacDonald had invited me to share, but my experience compels me to warn you that…

The call of God is not always a welcome one.

Remember that Moses tried to talk his way out of God’s call. Gideon kept asking for signs to make really, really sure that God wanted him. Esther had to be persuaded that there was absolutely no one else that could to the job, and even though Jeremiah answered God’s call, he was horrifically abused because those in power didn’t like the message that he delivered.

The call of God is not always a welcome one because the call of God often involves pain.

Even Daniel, who we often lift up as a great hero of the faith because of his night in the lion’s den, his confrontations of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar, his interpretation of dreams, and his many great prophecies, even Daniel experienced pain. Remember that Daniel was called only after he had watched his city destroyed, many of his friends and family killed, and the treasures of God’s holy temple carried away by the enemy.

3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— 4 young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. (Daniel 1:3-4, NIV)

Daniel answered the call of God, but he lived his entire life as a prisoner of a foreign invader.

Good morning. My name is John Partridge and more than few years ago, I sat where you are now, a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. From Ohio Northern I moved to Akron, Ohio and worked in Cleveland with the American Gas Association Laboratories as quality engineer and also in research and development. After ten years I moved on to Lectrotherm in North Canton where we manufactured, and remanufactured induction furnaces, control systems and other equipment for the molten metals industry. But sometime around 2002 I got called into my boss’ office. I knew something was wrong because the head of human resources was there with my boss, and that is never a good thing. Without warning, and without a single negative review or job appraisal, I was asked to clean out my office and be gone by the end of the day.

I thought that I was good at that job and, more than that, I liked that job.

Years later, I found out that I was just the first of many who would be let go (and the company eventually went bankrupt), but losing my job was devastating. By this time I was married, owned a home, and had three children so being unemployed was a big deal financially. But losing your job is a big deal emotionally as well. I had gone to school for six years to become an engineer, and I had been employed as an engineer for thirteen years. I was not quite forty years old and for more than half of my life, being an engineer was my identity. Being an engineer was who I was.

So if I was unemployed… who was I?

As college students, most of you were in kindergarten when all this happened and so you probably don’t remember how good the economy was at that time. Business was booming, the stock market had been expanding for twenty years, it was the largest period of economic expansion in the history of the United States, and it was a great time to look for a new job.

Except I couldn’t find one.

Despite the fact that I had a good degree from a good school, despite the fact that the economy was as good as it has ever been, despite the fact that I had marketable skills, solid work experience, and continuing education, I couldn’t even get in the door for an interview.

And so I prayed. I prayed a lot. I yelled at God. I was frustrated, confused and depressed. I studied the Bible. I talked to my pastor. I read books that my pastor recommended.

And I began to wonder if God had a new purpose for my life.

I had left my job at A.G.A. because I wanted to see the results of my work instead of writing reports year after year. I loved my job at Lectrotherm because we built things. Every now and then you could go out to the shop and see a tractor-trailer loaded with things that we had built as it was leaving for a customer. But after September 11, 2001, I had begun to wonder if that was enough. The machines that we were building were replacing the machines that another engineer had designed, and others had built, twenty or thirty years before. And so I wondered what purpose there was for what I was doing. If everything that I was doing would be ripped up and replaced in thirty years, in a hundred years, what difference would my life make? While I was working, these sorts of things just got pushed to the back of my mind.

But during my two years of unemployment these questions came to the surface like never before.

Eventually, I went to my pastor and asked what “this seminary thing” was all about and if it was even possible for an engineer to meet the prerequisites for getting in.

She laughed.

My pastor… laughed at me.

She said that she had known for over a year that God was calling me to ministry, but that she was afraid that if she had said anything out loud to me she might mess up whatever God was doing in my life.

What God was doing, was hitting me upside the head with a two-by-four.

My father had been a pastor. And so I had grown up in a pastor’s house. And I had sworn, for forty years, that I would never be a pastor.

But God had other ideas.

It is often said that God speaks with a “still small voice.” That idea comes from this story from the life of the prophet Elijah:

…and a great and strong wind rent the mountains… but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake:
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire
a still small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-13, NIV)

    Because of that story, people often believe that God speaks to us in a soft, quiet, librarian voice and I suppose that is true… sometimes.

But some of us are stubborn enough, and thick-headed enough, and just deaf enough, that we will never hear that still small voice. And in those cases, God is not afraid to get our attention with a two-by-four to the head.

This is, theologically speaking, the call of pain.

My call of pain led me to seminary and then to ordained, pastoral ministry.

Pain has a way of getting our attention. Pain has a way of focusing our attention in ways that no other form of motivation ever will. Pain can call us to ministry, but it can also call us away from unhealthy lifestyles, away from jobs, away from all sorts of sinful things, and away from the people, places, and things God chooses to call us away from. I want to be clear, pain isn’t always from God. Sometimes we experience pain simply because we have made bad choices, or just because we live in a fallen world and sometimes life just stinks. But whenever you experience pain, it is worth your time to consider whether or not God has allowed your pain for some purpose. Whenever you find your life is bringing you pain, it is worth your time to consider that God may have something to say to you.

God may speak to you in a quiet moment with a still small voice, but if you are anything like me, and you find ways to ignore him long enough, he will find a way to get your attention.

And in that case, no matter how thick-headed and stubborn you might be, you might want to spend some time listening to what God is trying to tell you.

Because, trust me on this, the sooner you listen…

…the less it hurts.