God’s Unwanted Gifts

God’s Unwanted Gifts

October 07, 2018*

By Pastor John Partridge

 

Job 1:1; 2:1-10                       Mark 10:2-16             Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

 

Have you ever gotten gifts that were more exciting to unwrap than to receive?

You know what I mean.  You’ve opened gifts, and been all excited, and the gift turned out to be an ugly sweater.  Our kids would occasionally get gifts from relatives that were things that they really liked… three years before.  A Dora the Explorer backpack would’ve been welcome in elementary school, but it just wasn’t what our junior high daughter had in mind.  Over the years, I’ve seen a number of those kinds of things in all degrees of severity.  Lovely gifts of wine or scotch whiskey… to friends that don’t drink, hair coloring to people who prefer natural color, a white sweater to a platinum blonde that never, ever wears white, a Bible for an atheist, and so on.  But the next level is when your boss tries to do you a favor and gives you a raise and a promotion, but it means that you must sell your house and move.  You interview for a new job, get hired, and move to a new city, only to discover that the company that just hired you has declared bankruptcy and your new job is gone.

Some gifts are not what we wanted and others, that we thought we wanted, turn out to be much less valuable or pleasurable than we thought they would be when we asked for them.  And the stories that we find in scripture often reflect this same idea, and sometimes we find that the gifts that God wants to give us, are the kinds of gifts that make us run screaming from the room.  We begin in the story of Job.  An honest, upright, and faithful man of God, to whom horrible things would happen, for no apparent reason.  (Job 1:1; 2:1-10)

1:1 In the land of Uz there lived a man whose name was Job. This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.

2:1 On another day the angel came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them to present himself before him. And the Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil. And he still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason.”

“Skin for skin!” Satan replied. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But now stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, he is in your hands; but you must spare his life.”

So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord and afflicted Job with painful sores from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. Then Job took a piece of broken pottery and scraped himself with it as he sat among the ashes.

His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

10 He replied, “You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

For the record, I understand that it was Satan who afflicted Job and not God, but God knew about it, God knew what Satan intended, and not only did God allow it, God seemed to invite it.  And, while a study of the book of Job can, and has, result in volumes of sermons with a great many valuable lessons, the takeaway here is Job’s rhetorical question, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

If we trust God, and if we trust that God cares about us, knows everything about us, and knows everything that happens to us, then do we demonstrate a lack of faith when we wonder if God is aware, or if God cares, when we go through times of trouble?  Job’s question is as relevant to us as it was to his wife, if we accept good from God how can we not accept trouble as a gift from God when it comes?  Trouble, pain, suffering, difficulty, and trials are not gifts that we ask for, and are sometimes gifts that cause us to run screaming from the room, but many times, not always, but many times, these difficult situations are indeed gifts from God that are intended for a higher purpose.

In Mark 10:2-16 we find a story that may give us some insight into how we accept difficulty in our lives.

10:1 Jesus then left that place and went into the region of Judea and across the Jordan. Again, crowds of people came to him, and as was his custom, he taught them.

Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

“What did Moses command you?” he replied.

They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.”

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”

13 People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

This passage seems a little odd because it starts with a conversation about divorce, but if we take a moment to consider what it meant to the people in the story, it helps us to understand it better.  The pharisees were having an argument over what criteria needed to be met in order to grant a divorce.  Historically, some rabbis made the case that the slightest infraction, like burning your breakfast, was enough, but others argued for a much higher standard.  Jesus rightly points out that all of this came about because Moses had said that it was okay for people to divorce and the rabbis throughout history had argued over how high a standard should be met before giving permission to do so.  But Jesus wades into the dispute like a bull in a china chop and upsets every vested interest, by saying that God is never okay with divorce, that it is always a sin, and that Moses only allowed it because human beings, even faithful, churchgoing humans, are a miserable, stubborn, disobedient, hardhearted bunch and would disobey God no matter what he said.

Ouch.

Instead, Jesus says, we ought to be more like the children that came to meet them.  The kingdom of God, Jesus says, belongs to people who are like children and, what’s more, if we don’t receive the kingdom like a little child, we can’t enter the kingdom at all.

So, what does that mean?  Let’s unpack it a little bit.

Anyone who has spent any amount of time at all with children knows that children are both innocent and trusting.  If you say come, they come.  If you say go, they go.  If tell them to do this, or don’t do that, they do what you tell them to do (certainly not always, but as a rule, they are far more trusting than adults).  For our purposes today, it’s important to note that children accept teaching, rebuke, and correction from their teachers, mentors, and parents better than adults.  In short, they are teachable and correctable and if we adults want to get into the kingdom of God, we need to be like them.

In this passage of scripture, Jesus contradicts the teaching of the pharisees on the subject of divorce, but this isn’t unique.  Time after time, Jesus makes it clear, that we aren’t as good as we thought we were.  The rules are stricter, and God’s standards are higher, than we thought they were.  Over and over again, Jesus makes it clear that we aren’t as perfect as we thought we were or as good as we imagined ourselves to be.

But if God is so demanding, and we are so deeply flawed, shouldn’t we despair and give up even trying to be good?  No.  And in Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12, Paul explains why.

1:1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

2:5 It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
    and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says,

“I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing your praises.”

Paul reminds us that Jesus came to earth to provide purification of our sins before God.  Jesus now rules over the angels in heaven because he suffered death for us, to pay the price for our sin and rebellion against God.  Jesus was, and is, the pioneer of our salvation and rescue so that we could be made perfect through suffering.

But if we read Paul’s words carefully, it says, “10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered.”  Paul is reminding us that Jesus was the pioneer, the first, and through him God chose to make our salvation perfect through suffering.  But by using the word “pioneer,” in this way, it seems as if Paul is also reminding us that suffering was not unique to Jesus.  Jesus made us perfect, in the eyes of God, through suffering, but we face our own suffering and at times, God intends for our discomfort, our inconvenience, our pain, and our suffering to change us.  Sometimes, pain and suffering cause us to leave our comfort zones and discover new truths, sometimes suffering leads us to new discoveries about ourselves, about others, about our world, and about God’s mercy, grace, and love.  And sometimes, our pain and suffering are the means that God uses to move us toward perfection, toward a better version of ourselves, toward the person that God created us to be, and toward the person that God needs us to become.

Trouble, pain, suffering, difficulty, and trials are not gifts that we ask for, or gifts that we ever wanted.  But rather than fight God tooth and nail, rather than demanding that God immediately rescue us, consider that we might want to be like little children before God and consider that God has indeed given these to us as a gift.  Consider that God may intend for us to learn something from our pain.  Remember that God loves us enough to sacrifice his own son, loves us enough to personally suffer the agony of persecution, flogging, crucifixion, and death.  If we trust God, and if we trust that God cares about us, then we should consider that no matter what joy or sorrow, pleasure or pain, comfort or suffering, that God allows into our lives, each of them is a gift that is intended to shape us into something better.

 

 


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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.

Jesus the Destroyer

“Jesus the Destroyer”

August 14, 2016

By John Partridge*

 

Scripture: Luke 12:49-56                   Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2                  Isaiah 5:1-7

 

If any of us have learned anything from the current election cycle, I think that there are two lessons that we have seen repeated over and over again. First, many people are not what they appear to be on the surface, and second, that no matter how badly you have mess up, a good publicist can “spin” it to look like something that wasn’t really that bad.  These same lessons can be applied to scripture.  By that, I don’t mean that Jesus has a publicist that is busy making him look better than he really is, but what I mean is that well meaning teachers, pastors and interpreters often focus on the good things, the nice things, the gentle things, about God and Jesus while overlooking some of the harsher aspects of their personalities.

Occasionally, this is deliberate, but I would guess that most of the time it is done simply because explaining and understanding these harsher realities is a little more difficult.  Likewise, understanding these harsher realities is more difficult for all of us to fit within our pre-established assumptions and understandings of both God and Jesus. But it is for exactly that reason that covering these aspects of scripture is important.  It is one thing to vote for a candidate because you heard all about the wonderful things that they have done, but before you vote, it is also critically important that we understand how they behave in private and that we know something about their core moral and ethical values.

If these things are important for us to know before we vote for a candidate for president, how much more important are they for us to know these things about the God that we worship?

We begin this morning with God’s message to the people of Israel during the time of the prophet Isaiah.  Here, God describes Israel as his very own vineyard where he had high hopes of raising a good crop, and producing a fine wine, but got something else entirely. (Isaiah 5:1-7)

I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
My loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.

“Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
Now I will tell you
what I am going to do to my vineyard:
I will take away its hedge,
and it will be destroyed;
I will break down its wall,
and it will be trampled.
I will make it a wasteland,
neither pruned nor cultivated,
and briers and thorns will grow there.
I will command the clouds
not to rain on it.”

The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.

God says that he cleared the land, planted the absolute best quality stock, watched over it, and did everything he could to prepare for a good crop, but all that he got was rotten fruit.  God asks, “what more could I have done?”  “Why did my vineyard only produce rotten fruit?”  But clearly, God is not pleased and he has already decided on a course of action.  The walls that protect it will be torn down, the hedges that made it pretty will be uprooted, and the vines will be trampled underfoot.  Nothing and no one will live there except briars and thorns.

Even the rain will refuse to go there.

And God says that is what will happen to Israel because the people of Israel are the vines that God has cared for and tended.  God didn’t look for grapes or wine from his people.  What God wanted was justice, but instead they only produced violence.  What God wanted was righteousness, but what his people produced was the distress of the poor, the underprivileged, the outcasts, and the outsiders.

Even though Israel worships a merciful, giving, loving, compassionate god, they have exceeded his patience and God declares that he will remove his protection and allow them to be trampled underfoot by their enemies.

That isn’t the picture of God that we usually get, but it is a vitally important one.  God is a god of justice, mercy, love and compassion, but God has limits.  There are limits to his anger, there are limits to his compassion, there are limits to his mercy, and there are limits to his love.  Just because God loves us, just because he is merciful, compassionate, and loving does not mean that we can do whatever we want.

We worship a loving God, but there are limits to what he will tolerate.

God freely pours out his love and his blessings upon his people, but he still expects something in return.  God expects his vineyard to produce fruit.  God expects his people to act with justice and righteousness.

We must also remember that Jesus is not just a nice man who was kind to women and children, who welcomed strangers and foreigners, and loved everybody.  Jesus has more than one mission.  During his first time on earth, Jesus came as the holy Lamb of God.  He came to be the rescuer, the redeemer, and the sacrifice for the sin of humanity.  But that isn’t the only role that Jesus has to play.  Jesus is also the commander of the Army of the Lord, the Lawgiver, the Lord of our Righteousness, the Mighty One, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the one who will sit upon the Throne of Judgement.

In Luke 12:49-56, Jesus says,

49 “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! 50 But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! 51 Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. 52 From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

54 He said to the crowd: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say, ‘It’s going to rain,’ and it does. 55 And when the south wind blows, you say, ‘It’s going to be hot,’ and it is. 56 Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

Jesus says that he has been sent to set fire to the earth and he wishes that the fire had already started but he cannot because the time is not yet right.  Jesus says that he has not been sent to bring peace, but division.  In this role, Jesus is the destroyer.  The coming of Jesus will divide families, communities, and nations.  The coming of Jesus really is the beginning of the end of the world.  After his coming, Jesus says that we should be on the lookout for signs that will help us to interpret the times that we live in.  Some of these are signs of the coming of the end of the world but others are signs that we can, or at least should, interpret because they have happened before and we can find them in scripture.  What happened to Israel, God’s favorite nation, his very own people, the people with whom God made a covenant of love and protection, when Israel became morally corrupt and God could no longer find justice and righteousness in his vineyard?

God brought destruction.

And the reality of scripture is that the coming of Jesus wasn’t the beginning of pie in the sky by and bye where the world would be filled with everything wonderful and all God’s children would finally get along with peace and harmony.  Instead, the arrival of Jesus was a sign of the beginning of the end times.  Because of the coming of Jesus, families would be ripped apart, and family members would turn against one another.  Not only did this happen in good Jewish families and in Greek and Roman families in the time of Jesus but it is happening today.  It is difficult to think of a better example than those we see in the news in Muslim families where children are disowned, beaten, or even murdered because they have become Christian.  This is not limited to Muslims.  It is not uncommon for Jewish families to disown family members who convert, great tensions are created in some atheist families when one member comes to faith, and I have met Indian men whose families turned their backs on them when they converted from their Hindu faith.

So what is it that God desires from us?

We’ve heard it before in previous weeks but in Hebrews 11:29 – 12:2, Paul says,

29 By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

31 By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets,33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

12:1 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, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 

What Paul says is that following Jesus is no guarantee that life will be one endless chain of joy and wonder.  We aren’t guaranteed a dance in the meadow with unicorns and rainbows.  Instead, Paul reminds us of all the faithful people who died because of their faith… many of them horribly.  But Paul says that all of these faithful people are watching over us, are praying for us, and encouraging us.  Our goal is to do the best that we can, to trust Jesus as much as we can, even when life doesn’t isn’t all roses and margaritas and doesn’t go at all the way that we planned.  Paul’s message reminds us to hold on to faith even if we don’t live to see God’s promises fulfilled in our lifetime.

Jesus is the Savior of the world, the Lamb of God, the Author and giver of life, but also the commander of the Army of the Lord, the Lawgiver, the Lord of our Righteousness, the Mighty One, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, and the one who will sit upon the Throne of Judgement.

All these things are true.

We know that our God is a god of love, grace, mercy and compassion, but we also must not ignore the reality that God’s patience has limits and that we do not have license to do as we please.

As people of faith, as followers, and as disciples of Jesus Christ, we trust God, but we must also be constantly striving to be worthy of the God that planted us in his vineyard…

…so that we can produce fruits of justice and righteousness.

 

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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 athttps://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.