When There Are No Words

“When There Are No Words”

Blue Christmas Service

December 22, 2019

By John Partridge*

 

This isn’t really a Christmas story.  But it is a story about how God met me at a time when I had no idea what to do next.

In 2001 I was working for Lectrotherm, a company near the Akron-Canton airport that manufactured, and remanufactured, induction melting equipment for the molten metals industry.  We made furnaces that melted steel for companies like Navistar, John Deere, and other companies in the Fortune 500 as well as tiny little places that you’ve never heard of.  I was an electrical engineer doing work that I liked and I thought I had a career that would keep me interested and well employed until retirement.  But, one day I was called into the boss’s office where I was dismissed and given an hour to clean out my office and leave the building.  My termination was totally unexpected.  They tried to say that it was performance related, but since my reviews were all good, they really didn’t have a reason at all.  Later I found that I was just the first of many, as the company struggled with financial problems that would ultimately end in its bankruptcy.

I felt as if the rug had been pulled out from under me.  I had no idea what to do next.  I remember sitting on our front porch trying to pray and finding nothing to say.  I couldn’t form sentences. 

There were no words. 

And so, I just sat on the steps and groaned and cried out to God.

Sometimes we don’t have words.  And that’s okay because God understands our thoughts anyway.  In Exodus 2:23-24, we hear a story of how God heard the groans of his people:

During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God.  God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.

And in Judges 2:18 we hear: Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for them, he was with the judge and saved them out of the hands of their enemies as long as the judge lived; for the Lord relented because of their groaning under those who oppressed and afflicted them.

God hears our prayers, even when all that comes out of our mouths are groans and weeping.

For me, what followed was two years of unemployment.  As I looked for a job in what was supposed to be a good economy and a solid job market, I had nothing. 

I wondered why.

I was active in my church.  We gave.  We volunteered.  We had leadership positions in the church.  And still, nothing.  I wondered why I lost my job, why I was unemployed, why I couldn’t find work, why God had allowed this to happen.  And God didn’t give me any easy answers.  And so, I began to read scripture as I had never done before.  I read books that my pastor recommended, and I struggled to discover, not only why I was unemployed, but if, somewhere in my pain, God had a bigger plan.  I wondered if God had allowed this to happen because he wanted to tell me something, or because he wanted me to change directions, and if so, where, and to what. 

The answers weren’t easy.  My prayers sometimes seemed to go nowhere. 

Job once felt as if his prayer to heaven just bounced off.  In Job 37:17-19 we hear these words:

17 You who swelter in your clothes when the land lies hushed under the south wind, 18 can you join him in spreading out the skies, hard as a mirror of cast bronze?

19 “Tell us what we should say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of our darkness.

For Job, it felt as if the skies were as hard as a mirror of cast bronze and his prayers just bounced off.  And even if they got through, he had no idea what he would say to God or how to make his case.

But we know that God heard him, even when it felt like he didn’t.  Behind the scenes, God knew Job’s character. God knew the future.  God had a plan.  It took a long time, but eventually Job began to see a small part of God’s plan and, over time, God restored to Job all the things that had been taken from him.  For me, after a lot of time, prayer, pain, confusion, and struggle, it began to seem as if God had a new plan for my life.  And as I began to explore that possibility, things began to get better.  It seemed less and less like I was swimming upstream and more and more like I was going with the flow and was a part of God’s plan.  With the help of my pastor, I explored something different.  That exploration led me to seminary, and to here as a pastor, and no longer as an engineer.  I am certain that, for now, this is where God has led me, but I am still keenly aware that this might not be permanent.  At some point, should God have a new and different plan for my life, someday I could pivot and start doing something else.

My life has been nothing like Job’s, but I learned a lesson that was similar to something that Job saw.  Even when it seemed that God was far away, even when I had no words, even when everything seemed to be confused and senseless, even then God was a part of my life.  Even then, God had a plan and a purpose for my life.  Even then, God was leading me toward something new.

No matter where you are in your journey, I hope that you will hear me when I say that I am confident that the same is true for you.  Regardless of your pain and confusion, regardless of who, or what you wrote on your star today, God knows where you are.  God hears your groaning.  God has a plan.  God is working in you, on you, and through you so that you can become the person that he created you to be.  Even now, God is leading you to a new place, and possibly to a new mission.

My prayer is that you will hold tight to Jesus.  May you will trust him with your journey, even when the journey is hard, even when there are no words and your prayers are only groans.

Merry Christmas.

 

 

 

 

 


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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.

Given Grace to Give Grace

Given Grace to Give Grace

December 22, 2019*

(Fourth Sunday of Advent)

By Pastor John Partridge

 

Isaiah 7:10-16                            Matthew 1:18-25                               Romans 1:1-7

 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to know the future?

Sometimes it might be a good thing.  When we’re going through difficult and challenging times it might be nice to know that things are going to turn out well for us.  When we worry about our children or grandchildren, it might be nice to know that they will eventually find their way, get an education, find a good job, and become responsible, productive, people of faith who love God.  Certainly, if we knew what the stock market was going to do next year, or even next week, we could make a lot of money.

But, on the other hand, would you want to know that your difficult and challenging times were only going to get worse?  Or that your children and grandchildren were not going to find their way?  Would you want to know the future if it was full of bad news?  Probably not.  And that’s exactly why Israel’s kings usually cringed whenever the prophets of God came to visit them.  God’s prophets had a reputation of only showing up when there was bad news and were sometimes thought of as harbingers of doom.  King Obadiah called Elijah the “troubler of Israel.”  God’s prophets knew that it wasn’t popular to know the future if the future wasn’t filled with good news.

And that’s a part of what is going on in the story we’re about to read, as Isaiah shares God’s words with King Ahaz of Judah in Isaiah 7:10-16.

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.

Ahaz remembers that the people of God are not supposed to put God to the test, and that is so ingrained in him that he won’t do it even when God asks him to do it.  God tells Ahaz that he will accomplish whatever it takes to prove to him that the things that Isaiah is saying will truly happen.  But, since Ahaz refuses to ask for such a sign, God names one instead and says that “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.” 

Now, if you think about that for a minute, Isaiah’s prophecy sounds a little weird if the only meaning is the one that we remember at Christmastime because a that wouldn’t have answered King Ahaz’s question at all.  But, many of God’s prophecies had not one, but two meanings and two fulfillments.  The first would be one that made sense in the immediate future and the second would make sense in the more distant future.  This is one of those times.  The first meaning was that a young, unmarried woman, quite possibly a woman that both Isaiah and King Ahaz knew, such as the woman who was betrothed to Isaiah, who we would think of as Isaiah’s fiancée, and future wife, would, in a short amount of time, become pregnant and have a baby.  The second meaning, of course, is the one with which we are more familiar and that is one that became understood as something that would happen with the coming of Israel’s messiah.

And so, in this passage, God promises Ahaz that before Isaiah’s baby is old enough the choose right from wrong, traditionally about 12 or 13 years old, those who were attacking him, the kingdoms of Aram and the northern tribes of Israel, would come to an end.  And, while that sounds like good news, if you read the rest of that passage it quickly becomes clear that this is one of those times where things are going to get worse before they get better.  But, in any case, the second meaning is God’s promise of a messiah who would rescue his people for all time.  And it is that fulfillment that we see in the story of Matthew 1:18-25 where we hear these words:

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Just as God had promised to King Ahaz through the prophet Isaiah, the rescuer of humanity, God’s messiah, is born to a virgin.  But Joseph was terrified.  The woman to whom he had been pledged in marriage was pregnant and it was clear that he wasn’t the father.  At that point, Joseph had three choices and none of them were particularly good.  Since having sex before marriage was prohibited under the law of Moses, and it would seem obvious to most people that this is what Mary had done (since that was the ordinary way in which pregnancy happens), Mary would not only be seen as violating the law, but also as bringing disgrace to her family, bringing disgrace to Joseph’s family, and also breaking the contract that bound the two of them together. 

Joseph’s first option, under the law, was to publicly humiliate Mary and announce what she had done, and possibly even have her stoned to death (although that rarely, if ever, actually happened).  The second choice would be to quietly divorce her on the grounds that she had already broken the contract between their families.  The third choice was probably the worst choice of all, and that was to go ahead with their marriage.  This option would bring disgrace, humiliation, and financial hardship to both of their families, and would make Joseph, his father, and all of his family look stupid for going ahead with a marriage to a woman who had violated her promise even before their wedding. 

But even though all these choices seemed like bad ones, Joseph, being a nice guy, thought that he would choose the one that was the least damaging to everyone.

But God had other ideas.

God tells Joseph, in a dream, not to be afraid, that Mary had really not slept with anyone else, that the child she was carrying was actually the child of God and would become the one who would rescue God’s people from sin.  And when he woke up, Joseph did what God told him to do and in doing so, models for us some of the best characteristics of God, God’s people, and humanity.  In order to do what Joseph does requires extraordinary trust, abundant love, a mountain of faith, a pile of forgiveness, a large measure of grace, and more an ample amount of hope.

But what is it that we should take away from these stories?  How does the story of Christmas guide us as we live our lives in the twenty-first century?  And, even though he lived two thousand years ago, the apostle Paul understood a part of that answer as he wrote to the church in Rome as we see in Romans 1:1-7.

1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God— the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. And you also are among those Gentiles who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul reminds everyone in the church that the Gospel message, the story of the messiah’s birth, death, and resurrection, was a story that God promised, through the prophets, hundreds of years before it happened.  It was because of God’s love for us that he created a way for us to be rescued from our own selfishness and sinfulness.  Just as Joseph rescued Mary by taking her home to live with him, just as Joseph chose hope, love, and grace, so did God.  Just as Joseph showed mercy and grace to Mary, God showed mercy and grace to us by sending his Son to rescue us.  It is through Jesus Christ that we received these gifts from God and, Paul says, because we have received these gifts from God, through Jesus Christ, we are, in turn, called by God to share this Good News with the rest of the world.

Paul is clear that the message of Jesus Christ was never just a message for the Jews, but has always been a message for the Jews, the Gentiles, and for the entire world.  And while I am sure that Paul didn’t intend for this to be Christmas message, it certainly is one because when Paul says that the Gentiles are being called to belong to Jesus Christ it reminds us of this:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. (Luke 2:8-10)

Good news.  For all the people.

We have been given grace, so that we might give grace to those around us, to the people we love, to the people we fear, to the people we hate, to the insiders, to the outsiders, to the connected, to the outcasts, to citizens, to foreigners…

…to everyone.

The world would not have heard the message of Jesus if Joseph didn’t have enough faith and trust in God to show mercy and grace to Mary.

And two thousand years of history hasn’t changed that.

One of the clear messages in the story of Christmas is that we are called to share God’s mercy and grace so that everyone around us can hear the message of Jesus.

As we leave this place, let us remember that we are God’s agents of grace.

 

 

 


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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.

Choosing Discomfort

We were cold. But would be hot almost within the hour. The fog was still liftng from the mountan valleys as we walked to breakfast just after dawn. There was a chill in the air and several of us had spent a fitful night tryig to keep warm in our tents. But as we walked to breakfast, we were also aware that soon, almost within the hour, the sun wouold rise above the mountains and temperatures would rise enough to make us sweat. And so, as each of us dressed that morning, we had made choices. We were all faced with the same facts, but each of us had made different choices. One had long sleeves and long pants, another long sleeves and shorts, another long pants and short sleeves, and still another both short pants and sleeves. Would we be comfortablly warm now, and cold later?  Or cold now, and comfortable later? Each of us knew that our choice was transient. Discomfort was inevitable. We were choosing the form of our discomfort. And it was so ordinary that no one gave it a second thought. But in other situations we seem shocked by it… and we shouldn`t be. We wonder why migrants would choose to come across our border when they know that the journey is arduous, that the “coyotes” that guide them vicious, rape ordinary, and often detention when caught. The thing is, many are aware of the dangers before they begin but, when faced with daily violence, death and mayhem at home, they’ve chosen the most comfortable discomfort. The discomfort they face at home seems endless and unsolvable, but the discomfort on the road to citizenship, or even residence, in a foreign country seems like a light of hope at the end of a dark tunnel. We wonder why young people who grew up in the church, and who believe that life begins in the womb, still sometimes choose to end that life through abortion. But often these young people, married and unmarried, are faced with impossible choices, none of which are good. While we may not agree with their choices, we should understand that they are choosing their discomfort. When every possible choice seems to be a path of pain, they must choose which path of pain seems ever so lightly less painful. We wonder why people who have few posessions and little money make choices that seem wasteful and foolish.  But they are doing the same thing.  They are choosing their discomfort.  It can easily be understood that although none of their choices are good, they choose a path that offers a little joy, however transient. We wonder why our friends choose to vote for candidates that do not represent their values, or who are known to act in ways that are contrary to the interests of the voters.  But the same principle applies.  It is often the case that voters are fully aware of the candidate’s failings, faults, and voting patterns.  But, believing that the other candidates are just as flawed, or who violate their conscience in other ways, the voters are compelled to choose their discomfort. Which path of pain seems the most bearable? Which uncomfortable choice offers a chance at hope? I didn`t laugh at my friends on the way to breakfast because I understood that each of us, in our own way, was choosing the uncomfortable path that we though offered the least discomfort. If we can understand that, then shouldn’t we extend the same grace to others who are making harder, more painful choices between their available paths of discomfort? Isn’t that what Jesus taught us? Each of us must make choices that guide us through paths of discomfort. We should have the grace to allow others to do the same. Friends… …always choose grace.    
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Costly Love

Costly Love

December 23, 2018*

Fourth Sunday of Advent

By Pastor John Partridge

 

Micah 5:2-5a              Luke 1:39-45              Hebrews 10:5-10

Love.

Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent and today is set aside to remember love.  But if there’s one thing that anyone knows about love, its that love isn’t always roses and unicorns, sweetness and light.  Sometimes love is painful and not at all like a sappy Hallmark Christmas movie.

But in particular, because this is church, and because we’re celebrating Advent and the birth of Jesus, the love that we’re talking about is God’s love, and the love of Jesus.  And for that, we begin this morning with the prophet Micah who lived and proclaimed the words of God between 750 and 686 B.C.  And in his writings, Micah tells of a king, a rescuer, whom God would eventually send to reunite the Israelites. (Micah 5:2-5a)

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
    one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
    from ancient times.”

Therefore Israel will be abandoned
    until the time when she who is in labor bears a son,
and the rest of his brothers return
    to join the Israelites.

He will stand and shepherd his flock
    in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they will live securely, for then his greatness
    will reach to the ends of the earth.

And he will be our peace.

Seven hundred years before the Christmas story unfolds, Micah says that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem and hints that he will be a descendant from the line of King David.  But more curiously, Micah declares that the origins of this coming king are from ancient times.  He is, he will be, a ruler who has been known throughout antiquity, perhaps reminding God’s people that he is the rescuer that the prophets had been writing about from the very beginning.

And it is this rescuer, redeemer, messiah, and king that Micah describes as someone who will stand up for his people and protect his flock through the strength of God.  He is the one who will bring security, greatness, honor and glory to his people.  And it is this king who will finally bring the one thing for which everyone had been praying for thousands of years.  Peace. 

“And he will be our peace.”

Fast forward seven hundred years and in Luke 1:39-45 we read these words:

39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

From the moment that Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, she knows, as does her unborn son John the Baptist, that Mary’s son will not only be a blessing to God’s people but will also be their king.  Elizabeth knows that it is through Mary, and through her son, that God has chosen to fulfill his promises to his people.

But so, what?

Of course, keeping promises is a good thing, but what difference does it make to us two thousand years later?

And we can find the answer to that in the letter written to the people known as the Hebrews.  Scholars have argued whether the author of this letter is Barnabus or possibly Apollos who travelled with Paul, but in either case, this is what he says about the coming of Jesus in Hebrews 10:5-10.

Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said:

“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
    but a body you prepared for me;
with burnt offerings and sin offerings
    you were not pleased.
Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—
    I have come to do your will, my God.

First he said, “Sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them”—though they were offered in accordance with the law. Then he said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” He sets aside the first to establish the second. 10 And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

First off, we are reminded that Jesus was quoting the words of King David and Psalm 40 when he spoke about God’s displeasure with the sacrifices of his followers.  Although those sacrifices satisfied the requirements and the specifications of the Law of Moses, they weren’t what God wanted because, although the people were performing the ritual, they were not doing the will of God.  It is as if the people were performing an act of the mind, but not allowing God to reach their hearts.  Beyond that, the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus came to set aside the entire sacrificial system so that he could establish the will of God as the new standard of obedience.   The result, the “so what,” was that where God’s people were once periodically and repeatedly purified, temporarily, through the sacrifice of animals and other offerings on the altar of the Temple, we have now been purified and made holy through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ once, forever.

So, you see, the difference that this makes two thousand years later, the “so what,” of the Christmas story, is the greatest gift that God has ever given to humanity and the most expensive gift ever conceived.  The coming of Jesus, and his sacrifice, death, and resurrection are the gift that brings perfection, purification, and holiness to us imperfect, impure, unholy, and altogether messy human beings. 

The coming of Jesus, son of David, the Prince of Peace, and Lord of lords, is the fulfillment of every prophecy written about the messiah for two thousand years.  The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is a gift that was and is unimaginably expensive, horrifically painful, and inconceivably wondrous, and it represents the epitome, peak and pinnacle, the very embodiment…

…of costly love.

 

 

 

 

 


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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.

The Lesson of Grace

“The Lesson of Grace”

December 24, 2017

(Christmas Eve)

By John Partridge*

 

Isaiah 9:2-7                            Titus 2:11-14              Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)

 

 

Reading #1 – Isaiah 9:2-5

 

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.

 

 

Reading #2 – Isaiah 9:6-7

 

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

 

Reading #3 – Luke 2:1-7

 

2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

 

 

 

Reading #4 – Luke 2:8-14

 

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

 

 

Reading #5 – Luke 2:15-20

 

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

 

 

Meditation:

“The Lesson of Grace”

 

Isaiah announced to Israel that the coming messiah would bring light into a dark world.  The coming of the messiah would bring joy and peace not only to Israel, but to the entire world and his rule and reign would never end.

 

Luke tells us the story about how the messiah arrived on earth to fulfill the promises that God had made to his people through the prophets of the Old Testament.  This story tells us about “good news that will cause great joy for all the people” of the world, and not just for Israel or for the Jewish people.

 

Our last scripture reading for the evening comes from the book of Titus.  This is one of Paul’s short, pastoral letters that was written to his missionary assistant, Titus (obviously), whom he had sent to share the gospel of Jesus Christ on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean.  Here, Paul reflects on what the coming of the messiah, Jesus,  means to us today (Titus 2:11-14) saying…


11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

 

Paul describes Jesus as the grace of God in human flesh, God’s agent of salvation and rescue for all people everywhere and not just to the people who live within the nation of Israel or only to the descendants of Abraham.  But to everyone who chooses to follow Jesus and listens to his voice, we learn how to become better than we used to be.  Listening to Jesus and following his teaching draws us closer to God and allows us to put immorality behind us.  No, we aren’t likely to be perfect any time soon, but each day we learn to increase and improve our self-control so that we can become better and live in a way that honors God.  We are each a work in progress.  We are called to struggle every day to become more godly, more upright, and to have hope in the future because of Jesus.

 

We exchange gifts during this season of Christmas because we remember the gifts that the Magi brought from afar and gave to Jesus, but more importantly because we remember that Jesus gave his own life as a gift so that we could be rescued from wickedness.  It was Jesus’ sacrifice that made it possible for us to be better than we used to be and it is only through that same gift that we can have hope that we will be better tomorrow than we are today.  Because of Jesus, we look forward to the day when God will wash away all of our imperfections and we will become truly perfect, and truly pure, and walk through the gates into God’s house as adopted sons and daughters of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ.

 

We have done nothing to deserve God’s mercy.

 

We can never do anything to earn such an indescribable gift.

 

And that is why Paul describes Jesus as God’s grace in human flesh.

 

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, 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 may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646.  These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at subscribe@trinityperryheights.org.  To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn.   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 Forgotten 93 Percent


    Today, Governor John Kasich added Ohio to the list of several other states that are refusing to accept even one refugee from the war torn areas of Syria and other nations.  This announcement is purely political and is entirely lacking in common sense and human compassion. 
    Judging by the Facebook posts I’ve been reading for two days, I’ve just offended many of my friends. 
I don’t care.
    Why? Because if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are completely ignoring nearly every instruction that Jesus ever gave.
Let me explain.
    It is obviously apparent that terrorists have infiltrated the flood of refugees landing in Europe and elsewhere.  But while estimates of how many terrorists might be among them range from a few to as many as 15 percent, most estimates go no higher than 7 percent.  Still, considering that there are hundreds of thousands of refugees, 7 percent is a lot.  Allowing 10,000 refugees into the United States could mean admitting 700 terrorists.
That is unacceptable.
So why do I think that Governor Kasich and a whole host of other politicians have it wrong?
    Because closing the doors on legal immigrants, even in the face of this enormous threat, conveniently ignores too much human pain and suffering.  Before I get around to Jesus, let’s first take a look at who these refugees are and why they are fleeing to other countries.
    The civil war in Syria isn’t just about one group of radicals who are fighting against the government.  We think that way because we think of the Confederate States fighting against the Union, but that example is just wrong.  In Syria, there are literally dozens of armed factions that are warring, not only with Syria’s government, but against one another.  And so thinking that this is like the Rebs against the Yankees doesn’t really do it justice.  Instead, imagine that every church that you passed this week represented the headquarters of a different armed group.  Imagine that, in your community, the Baptists are fighting the Lutherans, the Catholics are killing Pentecostals, and the Republicans are at war with Democrats.  Not only is your neighborhood a war zone, every week or two, another group tries to capture it from the group that captured it the last time.  Some towns have been blown up and shot up multiple times, churches have been burned, women raped, and entire towns lined up in the streets and murdered.
This is daily life in much of Syria.
    And so, not surprisingly, a lot of people, both Christian and Muslim, have left their homes, their families, and all that they own, to literally walk across several entire countries in hope of finding something better.
Are there “bad guys” mixed in with the “regular” refugees?  Yes.
But those of us who claim to follow Jesus are called to see the world in a different way.  Not through the lens of Democrat or Republican, but through the lens of the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
    If we look at what Jesus taught, we won’t find words like revenge, retaliation, or retribution.  We won’t find instructions to hate our neighbor or to fear the foreigners.  Instead, what we find are instructions to be merciful, compassionate, loving, and helpful.  Our mission is to rescue the lost, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and help others find hope and a future so that they too might hear the message of the Prince of Peace.
    We have every right to be concerned about the possibility of allowing hundreds of jihadi terrorists into our country, but that fear cannot allow us to slam the door on the 93 percent who are only looking for a place to live that won’t get blown up next week.
    It is convenient and easy for politicians to preach from a pulpit of fear and xenophobia.  But as Christians, we are not called to follow the teachings of John Kasich or any other politician.  We are called to follow the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t expect us to be stupid or act foolishly.
We remember that Jesus teaches love, mercy, and compassion, but he also said, 
I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”(Matthew 10:16 NIV)
We are called to be merciful, but to be smart about how we do it.
Governor Kasich and other politicians are looking for easy, and popular, solutions but in doing so they sell Ohio, and the people of the United States short. 
We are smarter than they give us credit for.
We are more than capable of sorting through the refugees and discerning which ones can be allowed in safely.
It won’t be easy.
But we can do it.
And it’s the right thing to do.

Baltimore – A Rush to Judgement?


I wish everyone would shut up for a minute.

But probably not for the reason you think.

    I waited a long time to write anything about the riots in Ferguson, Missouri because I wanted to try to understand the issues.   
    But this time, after watching and listening to media outlets talk about what is happening in Baltimore I don’t want to wait.  I am posting now, not because I think I understand what is happening, but because I am convinced that almost no one does.
Every media outlet, every reporter, every politician, and a great many bystanders have taken sides.
    Just like the Ferguson case, and the Travon Martin case, and so many others, everyone seems to be absolutely certain that they know exactly what is happening and why.
Everyone is rushing to judgement.
    They judge the police.  They judge Freddie Gray.  They judge the mayor.  They judge the President.  They judge the protestors, the rioters (those are vastly different groups), they judge the victims of the violence, and people are even judging the parents of the people in the streets. 
    Christians are often accused of being judgmental, but this is ridiculous.  Everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike seems to think that they know so much about what is happening hundreds of miles away in Baltimore that they can stand in judgement of people they’ve never met and who they know almost nothing about.
I wish everyone would all shut up and listen for a change.
As I watch and listen to the reporting from Baltimore, all I seem to find is more questions.
What exactly happened in police custody that led to the death of Freddie Gray?
Did Mr. Gray really have surgery on his spine only weeks before his arrest?
Did that matter?
Did the mayor tell the police to allow the mayhem to continue when it might have been stopped much earlier?
I could ask questions all day but it seems clear that, so far, there aren’t very many answers.
    And without answers, all the self-proclaimed experts (left, right and center) should slow down their rush to judgement until they actually have some facts.  Right now there are too many things that we just don’t know.   
Instead of rushing to judgement, why don’t we listen instead?
We all want justice.
    But we should be careful to find the facts so that there can be justice for everyone.  There needs to be justice for the police, the demonstrators, the rioters, the politicians, and especially for the victims.
Investigating, finding, and sorting through the facts are all things that will take time.
While we wait, instead of judging everyone, why don’t we do something helpful?
    Why don’t we try to find ways to help those who lost homes, jobs, and businesses?  Can our politicians and academics find ways to reduce poverty and joblessness instead of just pointing fingers at each other?  Why not volunteer with some charity or aid group to clean up and rebuild Baltimore?  We should all take the time to listen and understand people with whom we disagree.
    Instead of pretending that we know exactly what is going on and who is to blame, our time would be better spent trying to fix the problem and help Baltimore heal.  And while we’re doing that, we should talk less and listen more.
Instead of judging, try donating.
And if you are so inclined, I’m sure that everyone involved could use your prayers.

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One Small Act Can Change the World


    Every day we make thousands of choices.  We go to the grocery store. We choose to stop at a traffic light.  Some decisions are so small that we don’t give them a second thought, but even the smallest of choices can make a world of difference.
    Captain Edward Smith chose to ignore warnings about ice in the path of the Titanic.  That one decision changed everything.
    In 1955, a seamstress at a local department store was riding the bus to work.  As the bus filled, she refused to give up her seat to another customer.  It seems like such a small thing, but with that one small choice, Rosa Parks changed the course of civil rights and American history.
    In 1989 a column of tanks descended on Tiananmen Square to crush the ongoing student.  As they did, one man stepped in front of the lead tank.  By doing so, he compelled the driver of the tank to choose.  Because of one man, the entire column of tanks came to a halt. Photographs of that moment appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world.  With one act of defiance, one man captures the imagination of the world.
    Last week (April 9, 2014), a student armed with knives entered the high school in Murrysville, Pennsylvania and attacked other students and a security guard.  Amid the mayhem, Nate Scimio, a student and one of the wounded, reached out and pulled the nearest fire alarm.  His quick thinking is saved lives and helped to evacuate the school.
    Even the most simple and mundane choices have the power to make a gigantic difference.  This is exactly what we find in the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Two of Jesus’ friends are asked to do something so remarkably simple that we are stunned to discover how important their contribution becomes. 
Jesus tells his friends to go into town, find a donkey that he knows is there, untie it, and bring it back. 
How much easier could that be?
    What Jesus did was like asking someone to pick up a prescription.  We’ve already phoned ahead, we already know that it’s ready, all they have to do is show up, get it, and bring it back. 
And yet, as simple as it is, the task that these followers perform is significant.
    As simple as it was, the disciples did as they were asked.  As simple as it was, this act makes it possible for Jesus to arrive the way that the Kings of Israel had arrived.  One small choice transforms an ordinary arrival into an historic event. 
I want you to imagine what that might look like in your life.
Because God is the architect of our lives, he already has the big things all planned out. 
    God doesn’t ask us to build a multi-national pharmaceutical conglomerate, but simply to pick up a prescription.    Go, get it, and come back.
    A story, originally told by Loren Eiseley, tells of a man walking along a beach the night after an enormous storm.  The beach was littered with starfish which had been washed ashore and as he walked, the man came across a child who was picking up starfish, one at a time, and throwing them back into the sea.  After watching the child for some time the man said, “Why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. There are thousands of them.  You can’t begin to make a difference!”
    But after thinking about it for a moment, the child continued to throw starfish back into the ocean.  Each time saying, “I made a difference to thatone… I made a difference to that one…”
    Before God asks you to do something big, I can guarantee that God will ask you to do something small.  Be ready.  Do not hesitate because the thing that God asks is small. 
In the hands of God, one small act can change the world.
    Volunteer an hour of your time to visit someone who is lonely.  Buy an extra can of food for someone that is hungry.   
Smile.  A kind word or a friendly face can change the course of an entire day.   
Donate blood.  
Cry with a friend, or offer a shoulder to cry on.   
Share Jesus with a neighbor.   
Take a casserole to a neighbor who has health problems.   
    Offer to watch the children of a young family that can’t afford a baby sitter.  This may sound small, but others did this for us when our children were small and trust me, this was a generous and amazing gift.   
    Invite a single friend to dinner.  Did you know that for singles away from home, as well as for widows and widowers, family holidays like Christmas and Easter are the hardest to get through?  What’s one more chair at the table?   
    Buy a box of diapers or a can of formula for a single parent.  Do you know how expensive that stuff can be?  
Offer to wash an elderly neighbor’s car or shovel their walk in the winter.
You can make a difference but you have to do something.
One.
Small.
Thing.
It doesn’t have to be a big thing to make a big difference.
But in the hands of God, one small act can change the world.

A Great Cloud of Witnesses


What does it mean to be surrounded by a “cloud” of witnesses? 
    Not long ago I was preaching on Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees in regard to the existence of life after death.  In Luke 20:27-38, Jesus reminds them that Moses called God, “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  Jesus implies that it would be foolish to say such a thing in the present tense if they were not, presently, alive.  Jesus said, “He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
The Apostle Paul described life as a sporting event in which we are called to give our best, saying,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us…” (Hebrews 12:1)
    Paul expands on the idea of resurrection and the afterlife to remind the church that those who are alive in the next world are watching those of us who remain in this one.  Paul specifically refers to the prophets, saints, and martyrs but it isn’t difficult to imagine that this also includes all of those who have always loved us and cared for us, but who no longer remain among the living of this world.  I know that my grandmother prayed for me nearly every single day of her life and I have no reason to imagine that she has stopped doing so today.
Let me share a mental picture that I have found meaningful.  Have you ever held a newborn baby, yours, or your grandchild, niece or nephew for the very first time?  Do you remember how that made you feel?  It is a magnificent feeling.   Hold on to that feeling.  Now, imagine the moment when you first arrive in the next world, right after you have “crossed over” and passed through Saint Peter’s pearly gates, right after you’ve met Jesus face to face, or however you might image your arrival.  Now, you see, standing before you, a group of people.  Some you know, but many you do not.  In the front are your parents, lost children, and dear friends, but there are many more, perhaps hundreds, even thousands of faces that you do not know.  As you embrace your family and your friends, your father, or perhaps your grandfather, takes you by the hand and says, “There is someone here, that I have wanted you to meet for a very long time.” And he turns to a an unfamiliar face and says, “This is myfather” or “This is my grandfather.”  And then, for hours on end, they in turn introduce you to their fathers, and their wives, and their children, allof whom have known you since you were born, and have been watching you grow, and have been praying for you that Jesus would watch over you and guard your steps. 
    And the feeling that you have is the feeling of holding that newborn child in your arms, multiplied by ten thousand, or more.
    Every moment of your life that you were in trouble, every moment when you faced difficult choices, every moment when you needed prayer, all of these hundreds and thousands of friends and family who love you, were watching and praying for you.
   Think of this, when we walk outside in a heavy fog, that moment when the clouds lay upon the surface of the earth, we are not near the cloud, or next to the cloud, we are completely engulfed and surrounded by the cloud.
    This is the picture that Paul draws for us.  With every choice that we make, with every success or failure, with every crisis or ordinary day, we can imagine that this cloud of people who love us, family and friends, surround us, watch over us, and pray for us.
    Because our God is the god of the living and not the dead, we are constantly watched over by those who love us, care for us, and who are, even now, praying for us.  Paul says that because we are surrounded by this “great cloud of witnesses” we should cast aside everything that is holding us back and have the confidence to forge ahead into the unknown toward whatever God has placed in our path.  

May we all have the courage to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us…”

A Doorkeeper for God

   One of the verses that I often remember is Psalm 84:10.  I don’t always remember where to find it, but n this age of computers, if I can remember the words, the reference is never far away.  Here the singers in the temple, the Sons of Korah, and remember that even those with humble jobs rejoice in the service that they give to God saying…

“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

    Today on Facebook, my friend Jim Jenson posted this poem about the same sort of thing as a remembrance of one of our seminary professors, Dr. Luke Keefer (photo, right).  This poem was one that meant a lot to Dr. Keefer, and, I think, may become one of mine as well.  I would like to note that I do not have any official permission to reprint this here, but you can also find it many places on the Internet.  

    Sam Shoemaker (photo, left) was the founder of Faith at Work at Calvary Episcopal Church in New York City, in 1926. He was also one of the spiritual leaders who helped draft the original 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and was a spiritual teacher to Bill W., AA’s co-founder. (from istandbythedoor.com)

I Stand at the Door

By Sam Shoemaker (from the Oxford Group)

I stand by the door.
I neither go to far in, nor stay to far out.
The door is the most important door in the world –
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door – the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch – the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.

Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it – live because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in –
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
And want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving – preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door –
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But – more important for me –
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.

‘I had rather be a door-keeper’
So I stand by the door.