When Weakness is Power

When Weakness is Power

July 04, 2021*

By Pastor John Partridge

2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10              Mark 6:1-13               2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Everybody loves kittens.  Okay, I know some people are allergic, but the internet is crazy about cats and kittens, and before the internet, you could be certain that stories about tiger cubs, lion cubs, stray cats, kittens, and other cute furry animals would be popular on shows like National Geographic and Wild Kingdom.  So, imagine with me that you are watching a nature show on television.  In this scene, we watch as a playful pair of lion cubs wrestle with one another, in the middle of large plain of grass.  Suddenly, the two cubs are confronted by a pack of jackals.  The cubs stand to their full height and make tiny meowing roars, but the jackals continue to close the gap between them.  Then, as the kittens growl and roar, the jackals suddenly stop, retreat, and then quickly run away.  The camera then widens its field of view to show us that while the jackals had been closing on the kittens, their parents, full-grown adult lions, had crested the hill behind them.

Everyone watching wondered who, or what, had made the jackals run away because it was obvious that the kittens were no threat.  The kittens were too weak, too small, and too powerless to be a threat to an entire pack of jackals.  And it is precisely because of their weakness that we all knew that someone, or something, else had been behind the fear that we saw in the pack of jackals. 

Many of us have seen similar stories on television but I want you to keep them in mind as we read today’s scriptures that tell us more about weakness, power, faith, and grace.  This morning we rejoin David as he is proclaimed king over Judah, and all of Israel, in 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10.

5:1 All the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron and said, “We are your own flesh and blood. In the past, while Saul was king over us, you were the one who led Israel on their military campaigns. And the Lord said to you, ‘You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will become their ruler.’”

When all the elders of Israel had come to King David at Hebron, the king made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel.

David was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned forty years. In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months, and in Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and Judah thirty-three years.

David then took up residence in the fortress and called it the City of David. He built up the area around it, from the terraces inward. 10 And he became more and more powerful, because the Lord God Almighty was with him.

After the death of King Saul, the people look to David.  They have seen him.  They recognize that for years, it was David that led Israel to victory against her enemies on the battlefield.  They recognize that God had anointed him as Israel’s shepherd and king.  And, for the first time, all twelve tribes, representing the nations of Judah and Israel, unite as one nation under a single king.  And, we are told, that David, and the nation of Israel, grew in power and influence, not because David was intelligent, or wise, or strategically brilliant, but because God was with him.

Whenever Samuel, or anyone else, tells the story of the great King David, the credit for David’s greatness is always given to God.  David is known as a man after God’s own heart, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and a person of great faith.  And that is how we are told that a humble shepherd grew to become the greatest king in the history of the nation of Israel.

But we can find another, even more startling example of this same principle, in Mark 6:1-13 where we hear the story of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth.

6:1 Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed.

“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.” He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.

Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. 10 Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. 11 And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

12 They went out and preached that people should repent. 13 They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.

This story takes a couple of surprising turns.  First, Jesus, the man who fed crowds of thousands, healed lepers, the lame, the blind, and even raised the dead, is said not to be able to perform any great miracles in his hometown, because the people there had little faith.  Jesus had faith, the disciples had faith, but the people who needed healing could only see Jesus as a tradesman and the son of people they knew.

The second surprising thing is that Jesus then sends his disciples out to do the same thing that he has been doing.  Jesus sends the disciples out into the surrounding villages to preach a message of repentance, heal the sick, and cast out demons armed with nothing but a walking stick, and without food, money, or even a change of clothes.  And, if you’re wondering why this is amazing, think about who these disciples were.  We are often tempted to say that Jesus could perform miracles, and do all the things that he did, because he was the Messiah, the Son of God who was born of a virgin to seek and to save the lost children of Israel.  But the disciples were uniformly and universally normal.  They were born in the usual way to the usual sorts of parents and were normal folks who make their living as fisherman, tax collectors, farmers, and other regular jobs.  Until they met Jesus, there was absolutely nothing amazing about them.  But now, they go out into the countryside, and perform the same kind of miracles that Jesus did without Bibles, reference books, college educations, money, or even food.  The only things that the disciples had, was faith… and God.

And, just in case you haven’t connected the dots of these two stories and extended that line down to us here in the twenty-first century, let’s read 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, where Paul draws that line for us.

I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul said that when he prayed to be healed, God said “no” because grace is enough.  And grace is enough because God’s power is made perfect in weakness.  We’ve been hinting at that for the last fifteen minutes so let me say that again.  God’s power is made perfect in weakness.  And just in case that wasn’t clear enough, Paul says it in the first person, “I delight in my weaknesses” because “when I am weak, then I am strong.”  Paul says that he can happily brag about his weaknesses so that the power of Jesus Christ can rest on him.

What does that mean?

It means that we are kittens.

Whenever we are full of ourselves, and we think we have it all together, and we think that we can do it all ourselves, we are like those kittens growling in their little kitten voices at a pack of jackals.  But when we know that we are kittens, when we are willing to have faith in the big God that stands behind us, then the entire world will see that it wasn’t us that did the amazing and miraculous work.

The prophets and writers of the Old Testament made every effort to be clear that David was a great king because of his faith in God and because of the power of God that worked through him.  We can make excuses that Jesus was able to perform miracles and do all sorts of amazing things because he was the Son of God.  But then we are faced with his inability to do miracles around people that had no faith, and we are additionally confronted with the ordinary disciples who went out into the countryside with nothing more than a walking stick and were able to perform the same sorts of miracles that Jesus did.

Like David, Paul understood that the power to change the world isn’t power that we ordinary humans have.  The power to do miracles, save souls, change hearts, preach the gospel, and change the world is entirely in the hands of God.  Kittens don’t scare jackals but grown lions do.  You and I don’t scare demons, or have the power to heal the sick, clothe the naked, and seek and to save the lost, but God does.  When kittens scare jackals, everyone knows that a lion stands behind them.  And Paul knew that the same is true for us.  We are strongest when we embrace our weakness and allow God, and his power, to work through us instead of trying to do things all on our own.

On the surface, it seems to be contradictory.

Weakness is power.

When kittens roar, the world sees the lion behind them.

When we, in our weakness, let go of ourselves and allow God to change the world through us, the world will see the lion behind us.

Let us admit, and embrace our frailty, ignorance, and weakness, and have the faith to let God work through us.

Let go… and let God.

I pray that through our faith, the world will see the lion behind us.


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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.

Not Normal (Yet)

Not Normal (Yet)

Yogi Berra famously said, “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.”  And that kind of sums up where we are in our struggle to return to normal from this global pandemic.  Some things are returning to normal but, as it has been for the last fifteen months, “normal” remains a moving target.  Even so, things are getting better and as they do, our church is returning to more familiar routines.  But even as we move toward the familiar, our routines will be different than they used to be. 

What does that mean?

Well, let’s talk about a few of our routines and how they might be different.

  1. We’re moving back to indoor church.  Hooray!  But being indoors isn’t going to be exactly like it used to be (yet).  We are returning indoors, but we’re still concerned about the spread of COVID, so some things will remain different for a while.  Sunday school classes and church committees are returning to in-person meetings, but not all of them.  Not everyone feels comfortable meeting in groups and some committee meetings are sometimes more convenient online, so some of those groups will remain online.

We are going to worship indoors, but worship still isn’t going to be the same as it used to be.  We are going to take the offering differently, we will be space ourselves out more than we used to, we plan to wear masks when we sing, and some people will likely choose to wear masks all the time. 

  • The building isn’t how I remember it.  We’ve made some changes.  Some of them are pandemic related, and some aren’t.  Our trustees have not been hibernating for the last year.  I’ve mentioned before that there were new lights installed above the stairs by the handicap entrance and in the lounge, but most of you will soon be seeing those changes for the first time so it will look a little different.  The trustees have other projects in progress that haven’t happened yet, so you can expect more changes.  In part because of COVID and in-part because of security concerns, we just aren’t going to unlock as many doors as we used to.  Many of you won’t even notice, but we will put up signs and let you know what’s going on so that we can all get used to entering through the doors that are open.
  • Money.  Honestly, this one is entirely up to you.  To everyone’s credit, last year, our giving remained steady even though we stayed home and made the transition to online worship.  But 2021 has not been kind to us.  I’m not sure that there is any single reason that can explain it.  We got out of the habit of coming to church.  We got out of the habit of putting our offering in the plate.  We got worried about our personal finances and cut back.  It could be any of those, or all of those, or a hundred other things.  But our offerings changed.  Dramatically.  I won’t belabor the point here, because our members will soon be receiving a letter that will go into more details.  For now, let’s just say that our budget, our staff, and all sorts of things will be facing substantial changes if 2021 doesn’t start to look more like 2019.
  • Dress. I don’t really know.  But I suspect that over the last year, many of you have grown accustomed to attending church in your bunny slippers.  I’m sure you don’t want to show up half-dressed, but if a year of worshiping online makes you feel like you want to dress more comfortably, I’m pretty sure no one will mind.  I’m sure I’ll go back to wearing a suit at some point, but I admit that I rather liked being able to preach wearing denim pants and hiking boots.  The important thing is that we all get back in the habit of going to church and being together.
  • People.  While we were online, we’ve had a few new people begin to worship with us.  Even though they have been “in church” with us for months, they will be unfamiliar to most of you.  I hope that you will make them feel welcome.  If you are one of those folks that joined us online, I hope that will join us in-person even though almost all of us will be unfamiliar to you.  At the same time, I’m sure that there are a few folks who just got out of the habit of coming to church and won’t be returning.  I hope it isn’t many.  And I hope it isn’t you.  We are the church.  We are the body of Christ.  All of us.  Together.

I’m sure that’s not all.  I’m sure that there are changes I forgot to mention, and others that I haven’t learned about, or that haven’t happened yet.  But life is all about change.  As we return to in-person, indoor worship, things are going to seem more like normal.  But, at the same time, not… quite… normal.  Whenever you feel comfortable, I hope that you will return to worship in-person.  And, until you do, we are working hard to continue some sort of online worship.  Although that may face some changes too.

Whatever happens…

“It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” 


Blessings,

Pastor John


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Real Freedom (and Pandemic Paul)

We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.” 

But that’s exactly what we’re doing.

It’s become a cliché to ask, “What Would Jesus Do?”  But this week, I’ve been thinking church should be asking itself what Paul would do.  Of course, anyone who has spent any time in church or Vacation Bible School has heard about Paul the Apostle.  Paul was born in Tarsus which was a part of what is now the nation of Turkey.  But despite being born far from Rome, Paul was born to parents who were both Jews and Roman citizens. 

There were privileges that came with being a Roman citizen.  It was as if the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights only applied to citizens, and you carried those rights wherever you went, anywhere in the Roman world.  Non-citizens didn’t have the same rights and slaves certainly did not have them.  Romans could not be beaten or treated harshly, and while they could be arrested, they couldn’t be tried in any court outside of Rome but had to be returned to Rome, or to a Roman court, for trial.  In modern language, citizens were privileged.

But Paul didn’t always use that privilege.  Paul found that sometimes his privilege, his rights, his citizenship, and even his freedom, was a disadvantage when sharing the message of Jesus with the people around him.  In 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, Paul said:

19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

Even though Paul was not a slave, he sometimes gave up the rights that he had so that he could be heard by the slaves and share the message of Jesus with them.  Even though Paul knew that following Jesus released him from some of the dietary restrictions and rules of the Jewish faith, he would follow those customs when he was with the Jews so that they would be able to hear his words when he shared the gospel.  But when Paul was living among the Greeks and other people who were not Jewish, he would follow their customs for the same reason. 

Wherever Paul went, he did whatever he could to allow people to hear his message.  And that often meant giving up something important.  Paul found that his rights, his privileges, and even his freedom, got in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ.  Slaves wouldn’t hear a message that was preached by someone who used their citizenship and their freedom to act better than them.  Jews wouldn’t listen to someone who was an outsider and violated their religious laws.  And people everywhere feel more comfortable around a person who respects their customs.

But what does that mean to us?  What would Paul do if he lived among us today?

As we near what we hope is the end of this pandemic crisis in the United States, we are hearing a lot about rights and privileges.  We have a right to move about freely.  We are free to choose whether we will wear a mask.  And those persons who are vaccinated are being granted special rights and additional freedoms. 

But is exercising those freedoms the right thing to do?

I’ve seen churches advertising that they are “Open and Mask-less.”  Vendors are selling signs saying that vaccinated persons are welcome in their church.  And I’ve seen churches that say things like, “All are welcome.  Unvaccinated persons must wear masks.”  I understand that these are the rights that are given to us under the United States Constitution, and the privileges of having access to the Covid-19 vaccine.  But will exercising these rights prevent us from sharing the message of the gospel?

It was once common for churches to ask visitors to stand up and introduce themselves.  That custom made me so uncomfortable that I vowed never to return to any church that made me do it.  And so, I worry that requiring unvaccinated persons to wear masks will make them feel unwelcome.  We would never dream of putting up a sign that said, “Unvaccinated? Keep OUT.”  But that’s exactly what these signs are saying.  Anything that draws a line between “us” and “them” is exactly what Paul spent his life trying to avoid.

If Paul were writing today, I wonder if his words wouldn’t be, “Though I am vaccinated, and am free to do as I wish, I have made myself to be unvaccinated, to win as many as possible.  To the unvaccinated, I have become unvaccinated to win the unvaccinated.  With the mask wearers, I have worn masks, to win those that wear masks.”  I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

We have rights.  But what if using them turns people away?  In the twenty-first century, like Paul, we must be careful that our rights, privileges, and freedoms do not get in the way of people hearing the good news of Jesus Christ. 

Blessings,

Pastor John


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Vaccines, Bananas, and Christianity

Vaccines, Bananas, and Christianity

Our current environment of pandemic has returned the word “Vaccine” as a regular term of discussion in ways that it hasn’t since the national fight against Polio in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  Everyone is talking about the safety of the various vaccines available, when and where a person might be able to get one, whether they have started, or finished, the vaccination process yet, and how soon vaccination rates might it possible for our lives, and our churches, to return to something resembling the “normal” that we had a year and a half ago.  Vaccines are something that are designed to protect us and keep us safe.  If we are vaccinated, we hope that they will either keep us from contracting the disease or, if we do contract it, will prevent us from becoming as sick as we otherwise might have.

But as we think about immunizations, it might also be useful to remember that Christianity is not a vaccine.  Our Christian faith is not something that we take once, or occasionally, to protect us from evil, from misadventures, or even to protect us from God’s condemnation.  Bad things do happen to good people.  Christians are afflicted by the forces of evil.  And Christian faith means more than periodically showing up to church, or putting money in the offering plate, or memorizing Bible verses.  Instead, Christianity, and Christian faith, is a lifestyle to which Jesus calls us and, having accepted that call, it becomes a way in which we choose to pattern our entire lives.  Christian faith shapes how we make friends, how we go on vacation, the clothes that we choose to wear, the places that we choose to spend our money, the occupations, and careers that we consider for our life’s work and influences nearly every aspect of our lives.  Christianity is less about what we do, and more about who we are as human beings.  When we choose to follow Jesus, we announce our intention to pattern our entire lives upon the life that Jesus modeled and taught.

But while Christianity is not a vaccine, our churches, and their members, can, sometimes, act a vaccine against it.  While we are good about bringing our children, grandchildren, to church, and even occasionally inviting friends and neighbors, we often fail to “make the sale” and ask them to follow Jesus and become his disciples.  The result is that having come to Sunday school a few times, memorized the occasional Bible story, and otherwise had a “little bit of Jesus,” rather than becoming committed followers and disciples of Jesus, they become vaccinated against Christianity instead.  Rather than discovering a Jesus that is worth following, they spend their lives thinking that, like a flavor of ice cream, they tried it, but didn’t find it to their liking.

In my mind, it’s a bit like our daughter Lina’s adventure with bananas.  When we first met her in China, we tried feeding her bananas, she smiled, she liked them, and wanted more.  But one day, as we attempted to give her some bitter tasting medicine, we tried to hide it in a spoonful of bananas.  She could taste what we were doing and rejected both the medicine and the banana.  And after that single experience as a ten-month-old infant, she wouldn’t eat bananas again for almost two decades.

Too many of our churches, or their members, do this same thing to the children, grandchildren, and visitors that come through our doors.  They come to church, or meet church members in secular places, and come away with an experience that leaves a “bad taste” in their mouth.  And those bad experiences, whether they happened in church, at work, at school, or anywhere else, can prevent them from returning to church, or to faith, for decades, and sometimes forever.

As we celebrate Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, let us recommit ourselves to being true disciples who look and act like Jesus seven days a week, everywhere we go, and in everything that we do.  Let us live so that others will want what we have, and not be vaccinated against it, or are left with a “bad taste” that might keep them away.  After all, it was Jesus who commanded his followers this way:“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

I pray that we may be known for our love.

Blessings,

Pastor John


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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

Did you enjoy reading this?

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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

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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

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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.