Imagine that you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner and what’s passed around the table is a big raw turkey, a bowl of dirty, cold, fresh out of the ground potatoes, a loaf of stale bread, some bullion cubes, and a few bowls with flour, sugar, cocoa powder, and butter. Sure, all the ingredients are there to make a fine meal, but there’s clearly something missing and that thing is…
We can buy all the ingredients for a Thanksgiving feast, but without investing the time and the care that it takes to adequately prepare them, they aren’t anywhere near as good as they should be, or as good as we expected them to be.Preparation is the thing that puts the pieces together, measures out the ingredients, mixes them, and warms them to precise temperatures for a measured amount of time.Without that preparation, we end up with raw meat and stale bread instead of a succulent roasted turkey with stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, and dessert.It is the preparation that makes the house smell so good, and drool with anticipation.
It seems so obvious when we think about Thanksgiving and food.
So, why does it seem so hard to understand when we think about the season of Advent?These four weeks are a time that has been deliberately set aside as… a season of preparation.It is a time for us to set out the ingredients, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, hope, faith, joy, love, prophets, shepherds, angels, and everything else, measure them out in the right proportions, mix and season them, and warm them in the love of our community of faith.And then, at just the right time, it all comes together, and what is served is just what we imagined and just we needed to fill our souls to overflowing.
During this season of preparation, we invite you to come into the kitchen with us.Join us as we set out the ingredients, measure, share news of family and friends, mix, season, and warm it all, and us, in the love of faith and community.The result, on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, will be much more satisfying and fulfilling than raw turkey and bowls of uncooked ingredients. Like Thanksgiving dinner, the thing that makes us drool with the anticipation of Christmas, and so deeply satisfies our souls, is found in setting aside the time to prepare it, together.
What is an appropriate gift that you would give at a wedding? What we give, and how much we can afford to spend, changes with our own marital status, income level, relationship with the people being married, how well we like them, and probably what kind of mood we were in when we went shopping. We hear about the typical gifts of toasters, blenders, electric blankets, and other small appliances, sometimes we shop from the list that the couple provided on their gift registry, the crafty among us give thoughtful, handmade gifts time and self, but there is variety in our gift giving and it changes with the passage of time and changes in culture.
When my parents were married, not long after World War Two, most people were “getting by” but didn’t have a lot of money and so, among other things, my parents received enough towel sets that they were still unboxing them fifteen or twenty years into their marriage. One of my college roommates gave Patti and I a plunger with rolls of toilet paper slid onto the handle. His logic was that, when he and his wife lived in their first apartment, the toilet overflowed and… they didn’t own a plunger. Panic ensued. But, in any case, the lesson that he learned was that sooner or later, whether you realize it or not on your wedding day, everyone will eventually need a plunger. But when you need it is a terrible time to go shopping for one. Honestly, despite this being a relatively inexpensive gift, we needed it, we appreciated it, we used it, and I still think that his logic is a bit brilliant in its own way.
But with all those gift-giving ideas floating around in our minds, what sorts of wedding gifts do you think that we might find in the pages of scripture? As you might expect, they can be quite different depending on who is giving them, who is receiving them, and the time, place, and culture in which the gifts were given. But there’s a twist here. Before we’re finished, we will discover that some of the wedding gifts that we find in scripture are gifts that are being given… to us. But before we get to that, let’s begin with the words of the prophet Isaiah found in Isaiah 62:1-5 where he says:
62:1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not remain quiet, till her vindication shines out like the dawn, her salvation like a blazing torch. 2 The nations will see your vindication, and all kings your glory; you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow. 3 You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand, a royal diadem in the hand of your God. 4 No longer will they call you Deserted, or name your land Desolate. But you will be called Hephzibah, [ Hephzibah means my delight is in her.] and your land Beulah[Beulah means married.]; for the Lord will take delight in you, and your land will be married. 5 As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Builder marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.
Isaiah says that he will not shut up until Israel is vindicated by God and the world sees God’s glory and Israel’s splendor as a jewel in God’s hand. At that time, Isaiah says, Israel’s name will be changed from Deserted to Delighted, and from Desolate to Married, or perhaps, from Desolate to “Beloved Bride.” Isaiah says that at that time it will be as if Israel’s builder will marry her, and rejoice over her, like a bridegroom marries and finds joy in his bride.
And then in John 2:1-11, we see Jesus give an entirely different sort of gift to an unknown couple from the village of Cana in Galilee. We don’t know who they were, but Jesus’ mother was invited and so was Jesus, and so were all his disciples. As we will see in a moment, it was a seriously big wedding and an enormous party afterward.
2:1 On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2 and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4 “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”
5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6 Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.
7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so, they filled them to the brim.
8 Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”
They did so, 9 and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10 and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11 What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
We don’t know the people who are being married. We don’t know their parents. And no one in the entire story is named other than Mary and Jesus. We aren’t even sure how Mary or Jesus knows them because the wedding is in Cana and they were from Nazareth, but most likely Mary, Jesus, or both, knew the bride, the groom, their parents, or had some connection. My guess is that the disciples were invited out of politeness because they were known to be “with” Jesus. It was common, at that time, for weddings to included entire villages, last for a week or more and, as we look at the story about the wine, we can see just how big this party is going to be.
At some point, and we really don’t know how long it took, the wine ran out. This is not trivial. This is a big deal. Jesus lived in a culture that was based on a system of honor. The loss of honor could cost a family, or an entire village, the ability to do business, lose customers, make it difficult to find spouses for their children, or even buy and sell at a disadvantage in the marketplace. Honor was everything. And running out of wine, halfway through the wedding party could cost this family, and possibly the entire village, their honor. Our story says that before the master of the feast even finds out what is going on, Jesus has the servants fill six stone jars with what adds up to be as much as 180gallons of water.
I think that it’s interesting that, before Jesus performs this miracle, he is essentially drafted by his mother. Jesus protests that it is not yet time for his ministry to begin, or since he has already gathered his disciples, that it is not yet time for him to reveal himself by performing miracles, but just as mothers have done for, well, pretty much forever, when Jesus disagrees with her, Mary just ignores him entirely and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them to do. And even though Jesus is 33 years old, runs his father’s business, is the head of the household, and the Son of God, he does what dutiful sons do, and obeys his mother.
Jesus obeys his mother and, in addition to whatever gifts they might have brought with them, Jesus gives the bride, the groom, their families, and even their village, the gift of what we would calculate to be 75 cases or more than 900 bottles of wine. And, if we assume that the original supply got them at least halfway through the party, 900 bottles of wine, for the two or three days that remained of the wedding reception tells us that there were a lot of guests, that this was a really big party, and a really big deal. Jesus’ gift wasn’t just a gift of wine, it was a gift of honor and a rescue from an enormous embarrassment. Much like Isaiah had described 800 years earlier, Jesus brought a wedding gift of vindication before it was even needed, and transformed embarrassment, ruin, and dishonor into delight before the disaster even happened.
But the promise that we read in Isaiah wasn’t just that the builder and creator of the universe would show up at a wedding, but that he would be the bridegroom and would marry the church and its people. And, as you might expect, Jesus brings gifts to his bride as a part of that relationship, and we see some of those gifts listed in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth as we read his words in 1 Corinthians 12:1-11.
12:1 Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. 5 There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. 6 There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.
7 Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.
Paul says that the gifts that God gives to his people are varied and are unique to the needs, personality, goals, purpose, and mission of each person that chooses to follow Jesus. We are given different gifts, called to different kinds of service, and given different kinds of work to do, but all those varied, unique, and individual pieces of the puzzle are a part of larger whole, a part of a greater purpose than our own lives or the lives of our immediate family. The gifts given to us by God’s spirit are not only given for our benefit but are intended for use toward the common good of our community, our church, and the kingdom of God.
Whether we have been given wisdom, knowledge, faith, gifts of healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, discernment, a facility in speaking or understanding languages, or any other gift, our wedding gifts are not intended to sit on a shelf and gather dust. Neither are those gifts intended to enrich our selfish desires. God’s purpose in giving wedding gifts to his bride, to us, is now, and has always been, is for us to share those gifts with others; to use them for the common good, to help the people around us, to benefit the churches to which we belong, to rescue to the lost, bring comfort to the suffering, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, share the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to grow the kingdom of God. God’s gifts to us weren’t intended to be hoarded. They were intended to be shared with entire world.
And so, unlike the gifts that we give to a bride a groom at a wedding, God isn’t waiting for us to send a thank you card, and God isn’t wondering how well we liked his gifts. The question that God is asking is…
…how are you healing, how are you helping, how are you growing, how are you helping, and what are you doing with the gifts that I gave you?
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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.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.
1 Samuel 1:4-20 Mark 13:1-8 Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25
What do you do when life just isn’t going the way that you had hoped, you are filled with anxiety, faced with hopelessness, and God doesn’t seem to be answering your prayers? If you’ve been in the church or been a follower of Jesus for any length of time, you know that being a Christian is not some magical ticket to a pain-free life. We are not immune from tragedy, suffering, worry, or depression. If we were to go around the congregation this morning, and survey each of you we could probably list many most difficult emotional traumas that human beings can typically face.
But we’re still here.
But what is it about us that allowed us to endure? What do we have that can help others to find their way through difficult struggles and paralyzing emotional turmoil? If we’re honest, many of us haven’t thought about it too hard in those terms. There’s a fair chance that we deliberately avoid thinking about some of our life’s experiences because revisiting them, even as a form of self-analysis, is just too emotionally difficult. But without baring your souls to one another in church this morning, I invite you to immerse yourselves in the struggles and anxiety of the prophet Samuel’s mother, Hannah. And, as we think about Hannah’s struggles, maybe we can discover something within ourselves as well. We begin in 1 Samuel 1:4-20 where we hear these words:
4 On the day when Elkanah sacrificed, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; 5 but to Hannah he gave a double portion, because he loved her, though the Lord had closed her womb. 6 Her rival used to provoke her severely, to irritate her, because the Lord had closed her womb. 7 So it went on year by year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her. Therefore, Hannah wept and would not eat. 8 Her husband Elkanah said to her, “Hannah, why do you weep? Why do you not eat? Why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”
9 After they had eaten and drunk at Shiloh, Hannah rose and presented herself before the Lord. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of the Lord. 10 She was deeply distressed and prayed to the Lord and wept bitterly. 11 She made this vow: “O Lord of hosts, if only you will look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a male child, then I will set him before you as a naziriteuntil the day of his death. He shall drink neither wine nor intoxicants, and no razor shall touch his head.”
12 As she continued praying before the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. 13 Hannah was praying silently; only her lips moved, but her voice was not heard; therefore, Eli thought she was drunk. 14 So Eli said to her, “How long will you make a drunken spectacle of yourself? Put away your wine.” 15 But Hannah answered, “No, my lord, I am a woman deeply troubled; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have been pouring out my soul before the Lord. 16 Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time.” 17 Then Eli answered, “Go in peace; the God of Israel grant the petition you have made to him.” 18 And she said, “Let your servant find favor in your sight.” Then the woman went to her quarters, ate, and drank with her husband, and her countenance was sad no longer.
19 They rose early in the morning and worshiped before the Lord; then they went back to their house at Ramah. Elkanah knew his wife Hannah, and the Lord remembered her. 20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”
Hannah lived in a place where much of a woman’s value was seen as her ability to produce children… and she had none. Worse, her husband had two wives, and although Elkanah loved her greatly, the other wife, Peninnah, was not kind and went out of her way to taunt, torment, ridicule, and otherwise provoke Hannah because she had no children. And the annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for this important sacrifice was a moment that Hannah dreaded every year because she had to watch Elkanah pass out portions of the sacrifice to Peninnah and to all her many sons and daughters, and then, even though he gave her a double portion, there was just… Hannah… alone.
Hannah was emotionally gutted. After the feast she was deeply depressed. She advanced as far into the temple courts as women were allowed, wept bitterly, threw herself into prayer and began bargaining with God, swearing that if God would grant her a son, she would dedicate him to a life of service to God. But in her misery, she ran out of words, and while she was praying silently Eli the priest thought that she was drunk. Hannah answers him that she is not drunk, but deeply troubled, Eli answers with a blessing, encourages her to go in peace, and prays that God would answer her prayer. Some time later, presumably before the same feast the following year, Hannah has a son and names him Samuel, which means “I asked God for him.”
Ordinarily, this is the point that we would thank God for answered prayer, and for the miracle that Hannah had received. But today I want to consider what it was like for Hannah. Let’s think about her anxiety, hopelessness, depression, and despair. Let’s think about how long she endured that situation. If she was the first wife, then she would have been married for at least a year or two before Elkanah married Peninnah. And then Peninnah bore at least two sons and two daughters, and possibly more. Assuming that she didn’t have more than one child per year, then Hannah had been feeling the looks of others in her community, had been hearing the whispered comments, had endured those comments and mistreatment, as well as the looks of pity in her community, had been tormented by Peninnah, and had grown increasingly desperate for at least five or six years and possibly ten, or even twenty years.
And all that time, God was silent.
Clearly, God is not a genie in a bottle and prayer is not just a way for us to rub the lamp and ask God to grant us wishes and the desires of our hearts. Clearly, life doesn’t always go our way. And hundreds of years later, Jesus makes that same point as he walks through the city of Jerusalem with his disciples as we read in Mark 13:1-8:
As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” 2 Then Jesus asked him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4 “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” 5 Then Jesus began to say to them, “Beware that no one leads you astray. 6 Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7 When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.
The disciples point to the incredible buildings that they saw, and they were indeed marvelous to look at and incredible feats of engineering. In the temple, there is one stone in particular that is 44.5 feet long, 11 feet high, is estimated to be between six and eight feet deep, with a weight somewhere between 250 and 300 tons, is considered to be one of the largest building blocks in the world and would require one of our largest modern construction cranes to move. The disciples assumed that such beautiful and awe-inspiring construction and engineering would have some permanence, but Jesus tells them that these things would all be destroyed, that imposters would come who would claim to be Jesus, and who would lead many people away from God. Jesus continues by telling them that life wasn’t ever going to be easy and that the world would continue to see violence, wars, earthquakes, famine, and other man-made and natural disasters. Worse still, Jesus says that all these things would just be the beginning of the end of this world and the birth of the next. Jesus wants us all to understand that these struggles, pain, and suffering will be a part of our world, and a part of our lives until his return.
Ultimately, life is hard, and it isn’t going to get any easier.
At this point, I can almost hear some of you thinking that today’s message is not at all encouraging, and it wouldn’t be if we ended it here. But thankfully, this is not the end of our lesson. When the angels sang at the birth of Jesus, they said that they carried “good news of great joy for all the people.” And as we continue to read the story of scripture, despite our suffering and pain, we discover reasons for hope. In Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, Paul explains why when he says:
11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,” 13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.” 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Paul reminds us that although the day of judgement has not yet come, the world has begun to change. Worship in the temple required that the priests offer sacrifices for sin over, and over, and over again, but the sacrifice of Jesus Christ was offered once, was completed forever, and Jesus now sits at the right hand of God and waits for the end of the world when the enemies of God will be ground underfoot. With one single offering, Jesus perfected and sanctified, for all time, every person who chooses to follow him and put their faith in him. And, because of that offering, made by Jesus on the cross, Paul says that we have “confidence to enter the sanctuary.”
That’s helpful, but not entirely clear so I want to unpack that a little.
Remember in the story of Samuel, Hannah went as far as she could toward the temple but was forced to stop at the edge of the court of the women. The temple had clearly designated and enforced areas of worship. The men could pass through the court of the women and draw closer to the sanctuary, but only priests could enter the sanctuary, and only the high priest could enter the holy place. But Paul says that because of the sacrifice of Jesus, we have the “confidence to enter into the sanctuary” and come before God… as priests with Jesus as our high priest. Paul encourages us to approach God with a true heart, an assurance of faith, and a clear conscience and we are to hold tightly to hope because the one who has given us his promise is faithful. Rather than provoke one another to despair, depression, and anger as Peninnah did to Hannah, we are called to provoke one another to love and good deeds, to remember to regularly meet together, and to encourage one another more and more, particularly as we see the signs that the day of judgement and redemption is drawing closer.
Our world is a mess. It is full of violence, war, disaster, envy, greed, and suffering. Our lives are often filled with desperation, depression, anxiety, trauma, and darkness and, despite his love and compassion, God has never promised that we would be rescued from those things in this lifetime.
But… we have hope. We have hope because we know that this world and this lifetime are not all that there is. We have hope because we know that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ has been given so that we are, even now, rescued, forgiven, purified, and sanctified in the eyes of God so that we can enter the sanctuary with confidence. We can, as priests, carry our burdens and worries before God, share them with him, and leave them there. We can provoke one another to love, and good deeds and we can meet together, and encourage one another as we face the trials and difficulties of life. The message of scripture is not that the followers of Jesus Christ will be exempt from trouble or that we will escape the pain and suffering that is common to all of humanity.
The message of scripture is that there is hope and that…
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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.