Juggling Morality

Juggling Morality

(or, Schwarzenegger’s Choice)

January 17, 2021*

By Pastor John Partridge

1 Samuel 3:1-20                     John 1:43-51              1 Corinthians 6:12-20

In the Terminator movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is a line of dialog, “Come with me if you want to live,” that has been repeated in nearly every movie in the series.  It became so well known and so repeated among fans that it was picked up and used, unaltered as well as adapted, in other movies, television shows, and video games from Supernatural, to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to the Lego Movie, Finding Nemo, and even Casper (the friendly ghost).  In each scene, as well as the parodies, that line of dialog marks a moment of decision between two paths and is often a choice between life and death.  But even though there are no killer cybernetic robots from the future to be found anywhere in scripture, we do find those exact kinds of pivotal, life-changing, moments of decision when the people in the stories are faced with decisions that will change their lives forever.   The first of these that we find today is found in 1 Samuel 3:1-20, where both Eli the priest, and his young assistant Samuel, are each faced with choices that will change them, and all of Israel, forever.

3:1 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days, the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night, Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So, he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

11 And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”

15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

17 “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

19 The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

We understand this story better if we read the previous chapter of Samuel because, there we find that Eli’s sons are terrible priests who abuse those who come to worship under them, they steal from God, and they profane the sacrifices of God.  Eli knew what they were doing, and other than mildly admonishing them, did nothing.  Worse, God had already sent a message to Eli that his entire family would be judged, and his family line would come to an end, because of the behavior of his sons, and still, he did nothing.  In this story, God calls someone new.  God had earlier told Eli that if nothing changed, another priest would be raised up who would have the courage to speak the truth and here, God does exactly that as he calls to Samuel in the night.

I suspect that Eli knows exactly what God is doing when the boy Samuel comes to him, and he encourages Samuel to answer, to listen, and to be obedient.  And Samuel does exactly that.  Samuel chooses to listen to God and to obey him.  But Eli, despite God’s warnings, despite knowing that God was preparing judgement against him, still chooses to do nothing.  Eli chooses to ignore the sin of his sons and the injustices for which they were responsible.  Both Samuel and Eli chose between life and death.  Samuel chose to listen.  Eli chose not to listen.  Samuel chose obedience and life, while Eli chose disobedience and death.

And then, as Jesus begins to call his disciples to follow him, we hear this story in John 1:43-51:

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

50 Jesus said, “You believebecause I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, youwill see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Much like the call of Samuel by God, and through Philip’s introduction, Jesus calls Nathaniel to follow him. Nathaniel is, at first, skeptical that anything good could come from a hick town like Nazareth, but even before he has a chance to speak, Jesus knows everything about him, his honestly, his integrity, and even where he was sitting when Philip invited him to come with him to meet Jesus.  At this moment, Nathaniel had two choices, he could pretend that this was not incredible and impossible and go home and tell his friends that he had met Jesus.  Or he could choose to upend his entire life, leave his job and his family.  Nathaniel immediately recognizes that only the Messiah could do what Jesus had just done and makes the choice to follow Jesus regardless of the cost.

But what does that have to do with us?

If we have already chosen to follow Jesus, then why am I wasting my breath repeating these stories?

And the reason is simply that the choice of following Jesus is one that is in front of us every day and one that we must make many times over the course of each day and untold thousands of times each year.  In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), he explains it this way:

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.

The argument that Paul was, apparently, hearing, was that since we are already forgiven by Jesus’ death and resurrection, then we can do whatever we want.  But, while Paul agrees that we are forgiven, he explains that we simply cannot do whatever we want, because not everything that can be done, should be done.  Or in other words, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that doing so is a good thing. 

The argument that was used two thousand years ago, sounds almost identical to some of the arguments that we hear today.  In Corinth, the people said, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”  Or, in other words, I am hungry, so I eat.  But, in the end, both the food and my stomach will be buried and return to the dust from which they were created.  We hear almost the same things today when people rationalize their behaviors.  We hear “I was hungry, so I ate it.”  We hear, “I wanted it, so I bought it.” And we hear things like, “if it feels good do it,” and “the heart wants, what the heart wants.”  But not everything that our bodies want, and not everything that feels good, is good for us, and not everything is what God wants for us.

Paul says that we are thinking about it in the wrong way.  We ought not think that we can do whatever we want because we are already forgiven, we should, instead, remember that, as forgiven people, we have become, as the body of Christ, a part of Jesus and our sin, drags Jesus into the mud with us.  We would never dream of buying Jesus a hooker, or asking Jesus to participate in an extramarital affair, but that is exactly what we do when we sin.  Instead of saying, “if it feels good, do it,” we should flee and run far away from any sort of immorality and sin.  We are, Paul says, the temples of the Holy Spirit.  So, if you wouldn’t do something in church, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all.  Because our lives were purchased on the cross, they belong to Jesus and not to us, so the way that we treat our bodies is a reflection on how we are treating God.

Every day, in a hundred ordinary decisions, we make choices about how to live our lives and how we will honor God.  Eli and Samuel made very different choices, and those choices carried them in vastly different directions.  Nathaniel gave up everything when he chose to follow Jesus, and his life was transformed because of it.

Like them, every day, we choose whether we will honor God.

And whether you hear it in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice or not, you can imagine Jesus saying…

… “Come with me, and live.”

It really is a choice between life and death.

What will you choose?


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/8kwXPODOLpc

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

2020: How Did We Do?

2020: How Did We Do?

At the end of every January, we file our church’s End of Year reports.  And even though only a few months have passed since we filled out our Charge Conference reports, it is useful to look at some of the numbers and see how we did over the last twelve months.  I think that it may be particularly useful to look at how we did during such a strange and difficult year when many of those months we were grappling with the restrictions and changing demands of a global pandemic.

Among the first things that the report form asks are questions about church membership, and there we continue to see a significant decline due to the deaths of our members.  In 2019 we removed ten members from our membership rolls for this reason and in 2020 that number climbed to eighteen.  We mourn the passing of these members and we will, of course, remember them on All Saints Day.  But these losses challenge us as a church because even though many of them had not been able to actively attend worship, we feel the losses not only in the loss of our friendships, but also as we count attendance and in giving.

In this unusual year of largely virtual worship, we wonder about church attendance and understanding that number this year is a lot like trying to catch a greased pig.  On our Charge Conference paperwork, we reported our average attendance from January to March up to the point that we stopped meeting in person, and we will use that same number on one line of our End of Year reporting as well.  That attendance number (75) will look almost the same as the number that we reported last year (80), but only represents three winter months and, of course, doesn’t include any information about the last nine months of the year so, for most of us, that feels inadequate. 

We have kept track of our online presence and activity through various social media statistics, but because there are many ways that those number could be reported. Without going into too much confusing detail, every week I watch several numbers. 

Our online worship services on YouTube produce daily updates on viewers and traffic and, since it quickly became obvious that not everyone watches at 10:15 am on Sunday, I record our “official” traffic numbers seven days after each video goes live online.  That means that, unlike church worship where we simply count the number of people in the sanctuary, we don’t have a real count of our attendance for each week until the following Sunday.  With that in mind, when we first transitioned to online worship, Easter Sunday had an “attendance” of about 117, Palm Sunday had 123, and Christmas Eve also had 123. 

And while those number may sound a little low, compared to what we might have expected in person, in the online world, an attendance of 123 represents 123 different computers, not 123 people.  And, since we know that most of our congregation doesn’t join our online service to worship alone, we know that the number of people is much larger.  Among the churches in our United Methodist connection, churches are assuming that the number of computers should be multiplied by anywhere from 1.3 to 2.0 (or more) to arrive at what honestly is a guess at the actual number of people who are participating.  That means that if 123 unique computers connected to our Christmas Eve service, then somewhere between 159 to 246 (or more) were worshiping with us.  Our average, over 40 weeks of online worship, is about 78 “clicks” or “views” and 54 uniquely identified computers.  And, if you assume that more than one person is typically at every computer, that’s not out of line with what we might have expected in person.  The number on online worshipers that we reported on our End of Year report form was 81.

It is also worth noting that, over the course of the year, 7 more people have started following our church Facebook page (for a total 227), we have gained an additional 56 subscribers to our online sermon postings (for a total 393), and 57 people now subscribe to the YouTube channel where our worship services are posted (45 more than last year).   But all those numbers come with assumptions and guesses.  We know that all our members have not been able to join us digitally, we know that the numbers get confused when we have parking lot services as well as an online service, we know that some people are joining us online who live outside our community, and we have no idea how many people will feel comfortable enough to return to in-person worship, even when it’s safe to do so.  What we do know, is that since moving to an online format, the number of people who have been participating in worship since March has remained consistent. 

Not unexpectedly, we fell a little behind where we were financially in 2019.  Giving was off a little, there was no “loose” offering to count with a digital offering plate, we had no income from “Burgers in the Park,” and the economic uncertainty of these unusual times influenced giving.  But the changes that we made also led us to spend less, while also increasing our giving to missions.  While some churches are desperately struggling, the people of Christ Church have been incredibly faithful and with only a small infusion from our endowment, we have been able to remain current on all our bills, pay all our apportionments, complete several capital improvement projects in our building, and support all our missions at the same, or at an increased level.  I am incredibly proud to be a part of Christ Church and I want to thank all of you for your continued faithfulness.

I realize that is a lot of data, and while there is much murkiness and uncertainty due to both the numbers and to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, overall, I believe that our church will not only survive this crisis but thrive.  I hope that you are as proud to be a part of this church as I am, and that you will continue to tell your friends about the work that we are doing.  Tell them what great people attend here, how good it feels to be a part of this family, and invite them to join us online today, and in-person later this year.  I am certain that God has great things in store.

Blessings,

Pastor John


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Baptism: Not About Water

Baptism: Not About Water

January 10, 2021*

by Pastor John Partridge

Genesis 1:1-5             Acts 19:1-7                 Mark 1:4-11

If you have watched any of the Snickers candy bar commercials for the last few years, you almost certainly remember some of the dramatic transformations that people make when they are “hangry” and then, get better after eating a Snickers.  The way in which the advertisers portray this human metamorphosis is intended to be funny, and it often is.  But it’s funny because many of us already have experience with family, friends, or ourselves, being a little (or more than a little) cranky, or “hangry” when we haven’t had anything to eat.  I remember a number of times when, as loving as we knew him to be, my mother would send me to my room and caution me not to bother my father until after he had eaten dinner.  Our children can testify that similar things have happened in our household as well.  In all these cases, we recognize that our irritability, crankiness, or “hanger” really doesn’t have anything to do with noisy children, or anything else.  The real cause is simply that we are hungry.  Likewise, I watched a television show yesterday as on of the main characters argued with his mother about doing a mother-son dance at his wedding.  Many excuses were thrown out including the choice of music, and her inability to dance, but in the end, all her excuses weren’t about any of those things, but were entirely based upon her fear of looking foolish and being mocked by her new in-laws.  Often, the thing on the surface that everyone is talking about, isn’t really the root of what’s important.

And that’s exactly what’s going on today as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  The baptism of Jesus, and the subsequent tradition, and sacramental theology, as well as our many interpretations and denominational differences that revolve around the act of baptism, despite often disagreeing about how the water is to be applied, are all, in the end, not about water.  To explain what I mean, let me begin in the beginning.  The very beginning, at the time of creation, where we read this description in Genesis 1:1-5:

1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

In the beginning… God.  Right up front, that’s the important bit.  The earth was formless and void, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  You will notice that water is a part of the story.  And water may even be an important part of the story.  But water is not what the story is about.  The story is about the Spirit of God, the miraculous work of God, and the transformation of darkness into light.  And the light, we are told… was good.

And if we keep that example in mind as we read the story of Jesus baptism, we will see more clearly, that it is a story about something much more important than the immersion in, or the pouring of, water.  The story in the gospel of Mark 1:4-11, says this:

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

As we did in the Genesis creation story, we must watch for who is doing the action.  It may remind us of English class where we were asked to identify the nouns and the verbs, but it is important that we separate the players and actors from one another in the story.  We must ask ourselves, what is the story about, and who is doing the most important action?  And, in this case, it is God, once again, who is the one that we must watch.  In this case, although they are all important to the story, John the Baptist, the Jordan River, and even the entire Judean countryside and the all the people of Jerusalem, are only set dressing for the important action.  Jesus comes to the river, is baptized by John, and God shows up.  As Jesus was coming out of the water, heaven itself is torn open, and the Spirit of God descends upon him and God the Father speaks from his throne in heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Yes, Jesus was baptized, with water, by John, but that is not the important part of the story.  The important part that is central to understanding the story, is that the Spirit of God is the principal participant who is doing the important action of the story.  This is a story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it is only after this anointing, or baptism, of the Spirit that Jesus performs miracles and does all the other things that we read about in the gospel stories.  And so, we see that while baptism is vitally important to the story, it is the baptism of the Spirit that is central to the story, and not the immersion, or the pouring, of water.

But, if you want to double check and make sure that description is correct, look at Luke’s story about baptism in Acts 19:1-7 where he says:

19:1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

The men that Paul met in Ephesus knew about John the Baptist, and had been baptized with water, but Paul says that, as important as water baptism was, it was not the most important part.  The most important part wasn’t to be baptized with water but to be baptized with the Spirit of God.  And then, without using water, Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they received abilities that they had never had before, and this was illustrated for us when they spoke in foreign languages and prophesied about the future.

Paul’s explanation is that our being baptized with water is a two part action, our part is to repent of our sins and be baptized with water as an outward symbol of our repentance, but God’s part is to enter into us, at the time of baptism, in an act of transformation and empowerment, so that we are spiritually changed from the inside out and given the ability to do things through God’s strength, and through God’s Spirit, that now lives within us, that we could never do alone.

So, you see, the reason that we return to the story of Jesus’ baptism every year, isn’t just that water baptism is important, or that it is one of our few sacraments, means of grace, or moments when we can personally encounter the living God, although all those things are important.  The most important reason that we return to this story every year, is that it reminds us of the work that God began at creation, the work of transforming darkness into light.  The story of Jesus baptism reminds us that this was the moment of God’s empowerment of Jesus, as Jesus received the anointing of God’s Spirit and it reminds us that our baptism represents something far greater than our repentance and our interaction, by immersion, pouring, sprinkling, or otherwise, with water.  The story of Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we are the actors and the players in God’s work, that because of our baptism, we are baptized, anointed, and filled with, and completely transformed by, God’s Spirit who has taken up residence within us.  And, not only because of our actions in consenting to, and being baptized, but most importantly because of God’s actions at the time of our baptism, we are now equipped to do whatever amazing, and even miraculous thing that God calls us to do, through the power of the Spirit that lives within us.

As much as our denominations might argue about it, baptism was never about water.

Baptism has always been about transforming darkness into light, transforming evil into good, healing the broken, sharing the Good News of God’s rescue, and doing the work of God in the world.

Baptism was never about water.

It has always been about God transforming and equipping us to do his miraculous work in the world.

Let us remember our baptism…

…and get to work.


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/_kNHAqSfq90

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

2021, Blessing or Curse?

2021, Blessing or Curse?

December 30, 2020

by John Partridge

Will this pandemic influenced, socially distanced, Christmas, and the following New Year, be filled with “good news of great joy” or feel more like we were hit by a freight train?  And I think that my best guess is, it depends.

I was reminded this week of how we often find exactly the things for which we are looking.  We can watch same news stories and Republicans and Democrats will each hear entirely different things.  And each of those things will conform to the opinions and worldviews that they had before they watched it.  Scientifically, it’s called “confirmation bias.”  We tend to seek out views and opinions with which we agree, and even if we listen to unbiased reporting, what we hear is influenced by what we expected to hear. 

The same is true of much more mundane things.  I read a story once about an entomologist (you know, a guy who studies bugs) and his friend who were walking along a sidewalk in a big city.  Suddenly the man said, “Did you hear that?”  He stopped walking and started searching intently until he found a particular species of cricket in a crack in the sidewalk.  The friend marveled that the man had been able to hear a cricket chirp over the noise of the city, but in answer the entomologist simply pulled a coin from his pocket and dropped it.  Instantly a half dozen people turned and started looking for the dropped coin.  Smiling, the man said, my coin was no louder than the cricket, but people tend to find the things that they are thinking about. 

I don’t know if that story is true or not, but I know that our biases shape our daily lives, and our enjoyment of it, in powerful ways.  Years ago, I had a coworker who saw the entire world as a terrible place that always seemed to be out to destroy her.  Every conversation with her was one in which she described all the accidents and missed opportunities of her recent past and never once included the any stories of her successes, or even stories of her young son.  Her focus on the negative entirely robbed her life of the joys that could be found in her everyday life.

And so, as we enter a new year, and as we continue to live with restrictions and precautions of this current pandemic, I urge you to be careful of your biases about how you look at the world.   If we are looking for crickets or dropped coins, we are likely to find the things for which we are paying attention.  If we look for sadness and disappointment, we will certainly find them.  But, if we look for happiness, good news, and positive influences, I am convinced that we are more likely to find those instead. 

If we look at the Christmas story with this in mind, we realize that Herod was always looking at the world to find the next person that might threaten his power and control.  The Pharisees and the Sadducees, despite being biblical scholars, were always looking out for themselves.  But the wise men were looking for signs and the shepherds were looking for hope.  And so, when the star appeared in the heavens, everyone saw exactly what their focus and biases guided them to see.  The wise men saw a sign, the shepherds found hope, Mary and Joseph found answered prayer, Herod found a threat, and the religious leaders were so focused on themselves that they almost missed it entirely.

And so, as we enter this new year, whether we find blessings or curses in 2021 is almost entirely up to us, to our attitudes, and to our biases.  Rather than enter this new year searching for threats, or looking only for our own selfish interests, let us instead enter it as pilgrims in search of hope, faith, and love.  We are, after all, the ambassadors that carry “good news of great joy, which is for all the people.”  Despite the pandemic and its economic influence, despite our current, hyper-partisan political climate, despite our separation and isolation, if we are paying attention, I am convinced that there are, and will be, nuggets of good, silver linings, and pockets of joy that can be found.  Let us keep our eyes on Jesus, who is the “good news of great joy” for all people, the hope of the world, and the Prince of Peace because whatever it is that we choose to seek…

…is almost certainly what we will find.

I choose to seek faith, hope, joy, peace, and love.

Will you?

Blessings,

Pastor John


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*Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

The Light of the World HAS Come

The Light of the World *Has* Come

December 24, 2020

Pastor John Partridge

(Note: This is the text from the meditation shared at our Christmas Eve service. You can find the video of that service here: https://youtu.be/PCIT75HQFAk)*

As unusual as this evening has been, we attempted to make it as normal as possible under the restrictions and our desire to keep one another safe during this global pandemic.  I want to thank each and every one of you who took the time to email us and tell us that you were coming so that we could light a candle in our sanctuary for you.  And I want to thank everyone who volunteered to help with our Advent wreath, or read one of our scripture for this evening, music team and our choir who sang extra songs, the volunteers that set up all our luminaries, or to recorded themselves lighting a candle, or for any of the other things that were needed to record, assemble, and edit this Christmas Eve service.  I especially want to thank Bob Wallace for his herculean efforts at video editing.  As much effort as it was to record dozens of short, socially distanced video clips, it was a gigantic task to assemble those short videos into one, understandable whole.

But beyond the thank-yous of the evening, is the importance of the message.  As we have come together in this virtual gathering for Christmas Eve, I hope that you will all remember that the message of the angels was that they had brought “Good News of great joy for all the people.”  The Shepherds watching their flocks were blinded by a great light and heavenly choirs announcing the arrival of the light of the world.

That’s why we came tonight to sing songs of celebration.  And that’s why we lit candles and passed them, as much as possible, from one to another. 

The light of the world has come.

But the light of the world didn’t come into the world so that we could read about it in a book.  That light was the Good News, indeed, good news of great joy.  And that good news was shared by the shepherds in the field, and the wise men who visited, and by everyone who had heard the story.  That good news was shared, from one person to another, until, two thousand years later, someone shared it with you.

The light of the world has come.

And that light isn’t just something that we read about in a book.  That light goes out into the world this evening.  You carry that light. You carry that good news.  The message of Christmas is that just as the light has been passed from one generation to another, and just as it was given to you, you must pass that light forward to the next person, and to the next generation, just as the flame of the candles was passed from one person to another.

The light of the world has come.

We have come here tonight, and we have heard Good News of great joy that is for all the people.

Let us go out from this place and share that good news with the rest of the world.

Merry Christmas.


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/q5ywQknu4os

Did you enjoy reading this?

Click here if you would like to subscribe to Pastor John’s weekly messages.

Click here to subscribe to Pastor John’s blog.

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

How Can This Be?

How Can This Be?*

December 20, 2020

By Pastor John Partridge

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16                           Luke 1:26-38              Romans 16:25-27

If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, and from the last couple of decades of our national politics, it should be an overdeveloped sense of skepticism.  I once had an engineering co-worker say that if our management said that the sky was blue, he would have to look out the window to check.  And lately, that describes how many of us are consuming the news about both the coronavirus and politics.  As Ronald Reagan once told Mikhail Gorbachev as they negotiated a new nuclear drawdown, “Trust, but verified.”  If you think about it, our suspicions aren’t limited to politics and pandemics.  You have probably noticed that many of our non-church friends view the stories of scripture with that same sort of skepticism.  And, if we’re honest, even as believers, some of those stories strain our ability to believe them.  But we aren’t alone.  The stories of scripture remind us that the main characters of the story often wondered how such things were possible.  And as our first example, let’s begin with a story found in 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16, where we find King David having just completed his ascent to power as the king of a united twelve tribes if Israel, and the construction of his new palace in Jerusalem.

7:1 After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, he said to Nathan the prophet, “Here I am, living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God remains in a tent.”

Nathan replied to the king, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you.”

But that night the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying:

“Go and tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord says: Are you the one to build me a house to dwell in? I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt to this day. I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling. Wherever I have moved with all the Israelites, did I ever say to any of their rulers whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?”’

“Now then, tell my servant David, ‘This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men on earth. 10 And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so that they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning 11 and have done ever since the time I appointed leadersover my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies.

“‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you:

16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.’”

David rests from his warfare with Israel’s neighbors, from his political battles, and from his palace construction project, and how his attention turns to the idea of building a temple for the God of Israel.  But God denies his request, vetoes his idea, and says that David is not the man for the job.  But, rather than allowing this to be a discouraging word, God continues by reassuring David of his love for him and makes him an impossible promise for the future.  God promises David that his kingdom will endure forever, and his throne will be established before God… forever.

And, although it doesn’t say so, and although we know that David was a great man of faith, and we know that David trusted God and was a man after God’s own heart, we also know that David was not naïve.  David had been around the block more than once.  He had been a part of King Saul’s inner circle and then fled for his life after Saul turned on him and sent his entire army into the countryside to hunt him.  He had lived for a time as an advisor to the king of one of Israel’s neighbors, he had been betrayed by his friends, by his wife, and would later be betrayed by his own son.  David understood that kingdoms do not last forever.  And so, it isn’t difficult to imagine that even though David trusted God to keep his promise, he had to be wondering…

… “How can this be?”

And the same thing is true at the beginning of the Christmas story.  In Luke 1:26-38, God sends the angel Gabriel to tell Mary that she would be the one whom God had selected to be the mother of the messiah that would fulfill God’s promise to David, as well as many of the prophecies of the Old Testament.  Luke says…

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So, the holy one to be born will be calledthe Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

God specifically selects Mary to be the mother of Jesus because of her great faith.  But even so, when she is told that she will bear a child, and she has never been with a man, she wonders aloud, “How can this be?”  And I suspect that even after Gabriel’s explanation, Mary still didn’t really understand how a woman could have a baby without a man, but she trusted that God could find a way.

And that sense of wonder, and of faith, continues in the amazing works of God today.  In Romans 16:25-27, Paul says this:

25 Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, 26 but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes fromfaith— 27 to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.

What Paul is saying, is that God is the one who can do things.  God was the one who could create a reality in which one of David’s descendants, Jesus, would rule over Israel, and over all the world, forever.  God was the one who could make a way for a virgin to have a baby and carry the creator of the universe, and the hope of the world, in her womb in the form a tiny baby human and, at the same time, fulfill hundreds of ancient prophecies and promises that he had made to his people.  And that same God is able to draw us toward him, to bring us to a relationship with him, and to establish us in faith and trust as he did with David, and with Mary, with the disciples, with Paul, and with countless others who now gather as a great cloud of witnesses to the unfolding of history.  As difficult as it is to believe, and as often as we ourselves might ask, “How can this be?”  God is the one who is able to reveal the truth and to unveil the mysteries of the Old Testament, to rescue all of humanity, and to give strength to his people as they struggle through the twenty-first century.  But as he always has, God does these tings so that all the Gentiles, all the people of the world, everyone, might come to faith and obedience to the God of creation and to his son Jesus Christ.

The answers to our question of “How can this be?”, is the same as it has always been, “Because God is able,” and “Because God cares for you,” and “Because of God’s great love for all people.”

How can this be?

Because…  God.


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/q5ywQknu4os

Did you enjoy reading this?

Click here if you would like to subscribe to Pastor John’s weekly messages.

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Click here to visit Pastor John’s YouTube channel.


U*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Passing the Joy Test

Passing the Joy Test

December 13, 2020

By Pastor John Partridge

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11              1 Thessalonians 5:16-24;       John 1:6-8, 19-28

It is probably no surprise to anyone to hear that we are living in an unusual time in history.  But what I mean in saying such a thing, is that we are living in a time when we can see the freight train coming.  We are as an American society in the twenty-first century, very much in the position of the damsel Nell Fenwick who has been tied to the railroad tracks by Snidely Whiplash and is desperately hoping for the arrival of Dudley Do-Right to come and rescue her.  We can see the freight train of rising virus cases caused by Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year gatherings and we can anticipate the terrible consequences but there is little, or nothing that we can do to stop the train.  The only things that we can do… is hope.

But, as unusual as this might be, it is not unique in history.  As I have mentioned in recent weeks, the prophet Isaiah lived in just such a time.  In about 700 BC, Isiah and the people of Israel watched as the Assyrian Empire grew in power, influence, and military might and the Assyrian King Sennacharib had already brought his armies to the gates of Jerusalem.  Through God’s grace, Israel was saved, but Isaiah knew that those armies would be back, that Israel and Judah would be captured, marched to Babylon, and held in captivity for seventy years.  They saw the train coming down the tracks, they could anticipate the terrible consequences, and they were tempted to despair.  But, as difficult as it must have been to hear about God’s judgement and the impending destruction of their nation, because Isaiah also prophecies their eventual return to Israel and proclaims Israel’s rescue and the coming Messiah, Isaiah’s message is ultimately a message… of hope.

Even though they saw the train coming, and they knew that hard times were coming, they knew that God cared about them and that God had a plan to rescue them.  We hear a part this message in Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11:

61:1 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.  He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.  They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.  They will rebuild the ancient ruins and restore the places long devastated; they will renew the ruined cities that have been devastated for generations.

“For I, the Lord, love justice; I hate robbery and wrongdoing.  In my faithfulness I will reward my people and make an everlasting covenant with them.  Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples.  All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed.”

10 I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God.  For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of his righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.  11 For as the soil makes the sprout come up and a garden causes seeds to grow, so the Sovereign Lord will make righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.

Isaiah speaks about the coming Messiah, we hear a message that we will hear again from John the Baptist, and we hear a message from a God who loves justice, and who loves and cares for his people.  And that message, given to a people who watched as the freight train of the Assyrian army grew ever closer, shined like a beacon on a dark night and for hundreds of years, through invasions, captivity, destruction, suffering, sorrow, and death, this was a place where they could find hope.

And then, in John 1:6-8, 19-28, Isaiah’s vision becomes reality as John the Baptist announces the imminent arrival of Jesus.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

19 Now this was John’s testimony when the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem sent priests and Levites to ask him who he was. 20 He did not fail to confess, but confessed freely, “I am not the Messiah.”

21 They asked him, “Then who are you? Are you Elijah?”

He said, “I am not.”

“Are you the Prophet?”

He answered, “No.”

22 Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”

23 John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’”

24 Now the Pharisees who had been sent 25 questioned him, “Why then do you baptize if you are not the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?”

26 “I baptize with water,” John replied, “but among you stands one you do not know. 27 He is the one who comes after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”

28 This all happened at Bethany on the other side of the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

John proclaimed that the time had finally come for the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and that while he was not the messiah that God had promised, that messiah was already standing “among” them.  After hundreds of years and many generations, the prayers of Israel’s people were being answered.  God’s rescuer and redeemer had arrived, and the hope of the people was transformed… into joy.

Well, at least it did for some of them.  John rejoiced, as did many of the people, but not everyone.  It was the people that Isaiah had talked about who found joy in the coming of the messiah.  It was the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives, prisoners, those in mourning, the grieving, the people who suffered from injustice, robbery, and wrongdoing, it was the outcasts, the least, and the lost who rejoiced.  But the wealthy, and those whom the system served, and whose success had been tied to the success of the system saw the coming of the messiah as a threat to their success and to their way of life.  This disconnect between the haves and the have-nots grew until it exploded into violence, crucifixion, and death in the Easter story as the system struggled to maintain the status quo.

And later, long after the resurrection of Jesus, the church remembered the lesson of joy and in 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24, Paul writes to the church in Thessalonica and gives them these words of instruction:

16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject every kind of evil.

23 May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do it.

Rejoice always.  Find joy in the story, in the message of Good News, and in the prophecies of God.  Give thanks, at all times, for the things that God gives you, even when those times are difficult.  Do not cast aside the prophecies and promises of God just because you think that God is taking too long, or that there is too much pain, or too much suffering, or that your circumstances are too hard.  Instead, test the prophecies of God to find the truth.  Test them against what you know about God.  Hold on to what is good because we know that God is good.  Reject every kind of evil, because we know that God is never found in any kind of evil deeds.  Our God is a god of peace who is always faithful and who always keeps his promises.

In some ways, our joy is a test.  The coming of Jesus was intended to upset the apple cart and to disrupt the status quo.  We are called to rejoice in that disruption and not be so married to our success, to our wealth, our culture, and to the status quo that we become like Israel’s leaders and reject Jesus simply on the basis that his existence will be disruptive and make our lives more complicated.  Secondly, we are invited to test all of God’s prophecies because we know that God is always good and so we know that what God wants for us is good and that we can reject anything that is evil as not being godly.

The coming of Jesus at Christmas is intended to bring good news of great joy.

Let us rejoice.

But let us remember to find joy in the right things.


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/0s49_c1xx5E

Did you enjoy reading this?

Click here if you would like to subscribe to Pastor John’s weekly messages.

Click here to subscribe to Pastor John’s blog.

Click here to visit Pastor John’s YouTube channel.



*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Peace in the Present Promise

Peace in the Present Promise*

December 06, 2020

By Pastor John Partridge

Isaiah 40:1-11                                    2 Peter 3:8-15a                      Mark 1:1-8

How can a pandemic possibly be a good thing?

Certainly, current events will give us much to complain about and mourn over for years to come, but we also get glimpses of the occasional silver lining in our ongoing battle with the coronavirus.  Certainly, among these are an array of new medical technologies that have been brought to bear as our doctors and scientists seek new medications and new life-saving treatments, as well as new technology that has allowed us to develop multiple vaccines in just 18 months when the previous speed record for such an accomplishment was five year long rush program with the Ebola virus that was only recently approved.  But another important silver lining may be the attention that our forced lockdown and resulting isolation and seclusion has brought to those among us who suffer from depression, suicidal thoughts, and a variety of other mental illnesses.  While isolation is difficult for all of us, it is harder for extroverts, and disastrous for many people who suffer even in ordinary circumstances.  And while today’s message isn’t going to solve these difficult mental health issues, perhaps by shining a light, and continuing to raise our awareness of these problems, we can begin to make a difference in the lives of the suffering. 

But for the rest of us, as we struggle with our isolation and lack of human contact, many of us, the midst of a pandemic, and the resulting upheaval of everything familiar, which is, of course, piled on top of our normal level of change and upheaval, are wrestling with how can we possibly find… peace.  Our minds are constantly pulled in a hundred directions at once, we worry about our employment, we worry about our families, we worry about our health, about our church and other institutions and business that we care about, and in the midst of our whirling, dizzying, wrestling match with fear, worry, depression and despair, we hear the prophet Isaiah calling to us as we prepare for the arrival of the Messiah.  In Isaiah 40:1-11 we hear these words, spoken to Israel as their nation, their religion, and everything they knew, faced destruction at the hands of the Assyrian empire.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem

and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

Even as the disaster they are expecting approaches, God promises to bring comfort after Israel’s hard service was completed and her sin paid for on the day God would send the messiah to rescue them.  God declares that people are like grass because we fade, fail, and fall away.  Our failure comes because our faithfulness fails and not because God has failed.  We know that God never fails, and that God endures forever.  And that is why in this dark hour, Israel could find hope in God’s promise to send a messiah that would make the world right again.  Like us, Israel looked forward to the day that God would return their world to normal.  Best of all, was knowing that God wasn’t doing to do fix things with floods, fires, earthquakes, or destruction, but like a shepherd gathering his flock and carrying his lambs close to his heart.

And, because we get to read their story, we know that after their time of suffering in Babylon, the people of Israel, at least the few that had remained faithful, returned home to rebuild their nation just as God had promised.  And much later, in Mark 1:1-8, we hear the story of the coming of God’s promised messiah. As Mark writes:

1:1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you withwater, but he will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit.”

Echoing Isaiah’s message, John the Baptist preaches a message of baptism, repentance, and a return to faithfulness.  And this time, the people are ready, and Israel answers John’s call.  Mark says that the entire city of Jerusalem, and the whole Judean countryside went out to hear John, confess their sins, and be baptized by a man who spoke like, and dressed like, the ancient prophets.  Of course, we understand that Mark is exaggerating.  We know that the entire city of Jerusalem and the entire countryside of Judea did not go out to hear John preach and to be baptized, but the numbers must have been so large, that it seemed as if everyone was going.  And we can certainly understand that so many people went to hear John that almost everyone must have known someone who had done so.  But even though the people came, and even though John looked, dressed, and acted like a prophet, John’s message is that the people must be prepared for imminent arrival of messiah that God had promised.

God’s redeemer had arrived, and in the middle of an enemy occupation, and their struggles with Rome, the people were reminded of God’s words that they had heard from the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed.”

But then what?  Two thousand years have passed between them and us, between then and now.  What can those two-thousand-year-old words have to tell us during a modern pandemic?  But that isn’t a new question.  The church has been asking that question from the beginning and Peter wrote to his church friends and explained it this way (2 Peter 3:8-15a):

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.

Peter wants the church to remember that God hasn’t forgotten us.  What seems like a frightfully long time to us, is not a long time to God.  Rather than hurrying, God is being patient and giving people time for a second chance.  We are reminded that Christ’s return, and his judgement, are still unpredictable and may come at any time, like a thief in the night.  As such, we must be prepared for his arrival by living godly lives, to watch, and look forward to his coming.  On that day, everything physical will be destroyed but we are more than physical.  What is physical will be destroyed, but what is spiritual will remain.  It is for this reason that we must do everything that we can to be as blameless and perfect as we possibly can.  On that day we will see a new heaven and a new earth, where everything will be right once again.  Finally, the world will return to normal, and we will live in peace with one another the way that God intended.  And it is for this reason that we look forward with hope.

God’s promise, given through the prophet Isaiah, to the people of Israel came eight hundred years before the arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem.  And, since then, we have waited another two thousand years.  But God’s promises remain.  The people of Israel held on to God’s promises as they endured the loss of their homeland, the loss of their freedom, and the loss of God’s temple and their freedom to worship.  But God kept his promise and many people returned to Israel and rebuilt it.  As we endure a pandemic and wrestle with our feelings of separation, fear, depression, worry, and despair, we too hold on to the promises of God.  As we celebrate Advent, we are especially reminded of God’s promise of redemption and rescue and we look forward to celebrating his arrival both at Christmas and upon his return someday in the future.  God’s promises are not just something that we read about in the distant past, but an ever present, immovable rock upon which we build our lives, safe from the storms that swirl around us.  God’ promises are not a thing of the past, but an anchor for our present lives in which we find hope…

…and peace.


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/NHijitBg6cY

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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online).  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

Reframe, Restart, Re-imagine

As I write this, we are less than two weeks from Thanksgiving.  When you read this, it will likely be almost, or already, December and we will be counting down to Christmas.  We, both individually and collectively, have been trying to manage, and cope with, the constantly changing restrictions on our lives brought on by the Coronavirus since March.  And the latest resurgence and new peaks of COVID-19 are forcing change on us yet again. 

As I met with our Worship Committee and our staff, I had hoped to find a way for us to hold on to some of our Advent and Christmas traditions.  We talked about a drive through service, and even began designing a Christmas Eve service that would travel from station to station, in small groups, through the church and still light candles in the sanctuary.  But with the latest surge in virus cases, and the newest recommended restrictions, I doubt that we will even be able to do that.  Instead, we will pivot, again, and try to find a meaningful way of celebrating Christmas Eve together while we are apart. 

Few of us imagined a Christmas quite like this one in March and, if we’re honest, we’re having a hard time imagining it now.  But as we rush toward the end of what has probably been the strangest year any of us has ever seen, we also struggle to imagine what the new year will bring us.  We have hope that new vaccines will successfully conclude their clinical trials, be approved, and begin distribution but, at this point, we are told that widespread availability probably won’t happen until mid-summer.  Sigh.  That means we probably should prepare ourselves for Coronavirus to dampen our plans for yet another Easter.

But a new year still encourages us to image a new beginning.  A new year now, as always, presses us to reflect on the year we leave behind and envision a better, brighter, bolder, future.  Perhaps this year, more than ever, we look forward to leaving 2020 behind and hoping for something better.  But as we do, let us also grapple with what lessons, however difficult, that we have learned. 

I believe that this pandemic has taught us, or at least boldly reminded us, that “church” is not a building and “mission” is not what happens inside of that building.  We are learning that “community” and “family” are bigger ideas, and stronger ties, than just the people with whom we can shake hands each Sunday and we are finding ways to stay connected to the people we care about, the people in our church family, and the people in our communities in other ways.  We are learning that the “reach” of our church, and our worship, is bigger than just the people who show up in person, on Sunday morning and we are learning, I hope, how to reach out to, and to connect with, the people around us in ways that we hadn’t considered before.  We are already seeing “new faces” in our church that have joined us on the internet and haven’t yet attended a single “in-person” worship service, and despite not having what we might have, a few months ago, considered to be an essential element, they now consider themselves to be a part of our church.

And so, as we hurtle toward the end of one year and the beginning of the next, I hope that we will continue to reframe our ideas of what some of these words mean.  For some of us, words like church, mission, outreach, community, and even family will never be the same even after things return to “normal.”  As we grapple with these new meanings, and with our new knowledge, and yes, new skills, let us also continue to re-imagine what we could be, what we can be, and what God is calling us to be as individuals, as a people, and as a church.  Clearly, the situation that we have is not one that we wanted, or even one that we ever imagined, but I am certain that through it, God is trying to teach us something incredibly valuable…

if we are willing to listen… and learn.

I pray that, years from now, rather than mourn over the things that we lost during the pandemic of 2020, we would instead rejoice over the things that we learned, and what that new knowledge, and that new understanding, allowed us to achieve.

Blessings,

Pastor John

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The Death of “Normal”

“I can’t wait for things to get back to normal.”

You’ve all heard it.  Sometimes it seems as if we hear someone say it every day.    But you know what?  The old “normal” is dead and it isn’t coming back.  I’ll explain what I mean in a minute, but while the death of normal makes me a little sad, it also gives me hope.

For most of us, getting back to “normal” means that everything returns to the way that it was before COVID-19 turned our lives upside-own and sideways.  But so much has changed and, if we’re honest, we have changed, that there’s no way for us to go back to the way that they were before.  And, if we’re brutally realistic, some things are still going to get worse before they get better.  So, how is any of that hopeful?

First, let me explain why we can’t go back as if this year was a children’s playground “do over.”  Some things have changed that simply can’t be erased.  People we love have died and we can’t get them back.  Businesses have closed that won’t reopen, and more are likely to do so before this is over.  Movie theaters and other businesses are starting to close as the pandemic drags on and while some of them may have enough money to try again when things get better, most of them are gone forever as are the jobs that they created.  But, after six months, our behavior is changing too and, by the time COVID-19 burns itself out or we develop a vaccine, our habits and patterns of life will have changed as well.  People who never used the drive thru at the bank or the pharmacy will be used to it, and many of us will like it enough to keep using it.  Many of us have discovered the convenience of Zoom meetings and, while we might not meet that way all the time, some of our meetings will remain on Zoom and other electronic platforms.  People who didn’t cook at home a lot are learning how, and some of them are getting pretty good at it and are discovering that it’s a lot cheaper (and healthier) than eating out.  Families are spending more time together and more time outdoors.  And every one of those changes, from small ones to big ones, changes how we do business and how we live our lives.

Churches are discovering the same thing.  Churches have had to completely change the way that we fund our operations.  Obviously, there isn’t a weekly offering plate if there is no weekly in-person worship service.  So, with essentially no notice, churches had to find ways of either collecting a weekly offering by mail or doing so electronically.  Christ Church has been blessed to have a congregation that navigated that pivot well, thanks to your adaptability and thanks to finance and computer literate members who had the building blocks in place long before we needed to rely on them.  But some churches haven’t navigated that transition nearly as well, and many of those churches may not survive.  All of us have seen those changes in our Cub Scout pack, our weekly Community Dinner, our collections for the hungry and the homeless, our online worship, and a hundred other ways.

But, at the same time, not all those changes are bad.  Some of us are discovering how easy that donating electronically can be, and we might just like it.  Our move to online worship may have lost a few of our regular attenders but, at the same time, we’ve added a few new “faces” in worship.  Each week there are several people who are “liking,” commenting, and sharing our services online that we haven’t yet met in person.  People are “visiting” our church, and our worship services, that likely would not have physically walked in the door before we were forced to change.  And some of the people we’ve known for years have discovered that our online worship, newsletters, and “Newsy Notes” have allowed them to stay connected even when they are working weekends, sick, travelling, or retire out of state.  The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to shift our perspective.  As much as we love our church building, it’s possible that we are less likely to think of “church” as a building when we are prevented from spending so much time in it.  It might just be easier for us to think about “being Jesus” to the people around us when we don’t physically see the Outreach Committee at church every Sunday and expect them (or the pastor) to be Jesus for us. 

And if those changes help us to meet new people, share the gospel with new friends, reach out to our neighbors, get to know their names and their problems, to love them, and be Jesus to them, that’s certainly not a bad thing and it’s not something that I want to give up when this is over.

It’s time for us to accept that the old “normal” isn’t ever coming back.  But while this pandemic is still a long way from being over, now is a great time for us to think about what our “new normal” will look like when it finally is.  Church in the “new normal” is almost certainly going to remain online in addition to “in-person.”  Some of our meetings are likely to remain on Zoom simply because it’s convenient as well as easier for some of our member who don’t like to drive after dark during the winter months.  Some of us will continue to use the option of giving online. 

But how will we, as the people of God, be changed?  Will we be more loving?  Will we be more compassionate?  Will we be more aware of our neighbors, coworkers, and other people around us?  Will we be transformed by this natural disaster, and by God, into people who are more like Jesus, who love like Jesus, than we were before?  Will our church become known, even more than we were, as a church who cares about our neighborhood and about our community?  Will we, more than ever, act as if we are the ambassadors of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God?

I hope so.  I see it happening in bits and pieces and it’s growing.  We are, every day, taking baby steps in a new direction.  And, if that new direction carries us closer to Jesus, I don’t ever want to go back to the old “normal.”

I urge you to keep praying for Christ Church, for our church family, for the new names and new faces that we are reaching in new ways, for our neighborhood, our community, our nation, and for the world. 

The old “normal” isn’t coming back. 

Feel free to grieve its loss.

But there is hope.

We will, eventually, pass through this trial and arrive on the shores of a new “normal.”

Let us pray that when we arrive, each one of us, and our church, is more like Jesus than ever before.

Blessings,

Pastor John


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