A Don Rickles Christmas Story

A Don Rickles Christmas Story

December 05, 2019

(Meditation for Communion at Copeland Oaks)

By John Partridge*

 

Scripture: Luke 3:7-18

I probably couldn’t use this illustration in a younger audience, but I’m confident that everyone here will understand.  Do you remember when Don Rickles was invited to speak at Ronald Reagan’s inauguration?  There was some concern about what he would say because, well, because he was Don Rickles, the master of the put-down.  But second, because it was no secret that Don Rickles was a Democrat and had actively campaigned for Ronald Reagan’s opponent.  Maybe because that was back when people had some sense, when you could count on an entertainer to do the right thing, and when politicians had a sense of humor, but he was, ultimately invited, he accepted the invitation, and his roast of the president was absolutely hilarious.

But, imagine if you went to hear an evangelist and were attacked in the way that Don Rickles roasted people.  And then, imagine that the roasts weren’t funny, but instead were deadly serious.  It seems difficult to believe that such a thing would be a good formula to reach people and draw them to any kind of faith in God.  But as weird as that sounds, that is almost exactly how John the Baptist preached to the people who came to see him… at least at first.  In Luke 3:7-18, as John the Baptist proclaims the coming of the Messiah and the coming judgment, but also offers helpful instruction… and hope.

John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

I cannot remember a single time when I have taken classes on preaching or public speaking, when anyone thought it was a good idea to begin a message by openly insulting and taunting our listeners.  In fact, I am virtually certain that, unless you were Don Rickles, this is a bad idea most of the time.  But this is exactly what John does.  John begins by calling everyone snakes and talks about judgment and the wrath of God.

According to John, no one can be saved because they were born in the church, born to people who went to church, or because they themselves go to church.  For John, the only real measure of godliness is the fruit that grows out of repentance.

Today, some of us would wonder what the fruit of repentance would look like, and the people in the crowd felt exactly the same way.  John’s answer is to share what you have, with people who don’t have any.  Feed the hungry, clothe the naked.  But even that isn’t enough because some people want to know specifics.  Tax collectors, who were widely considered to be cheats, scoundrels, and enemy collaborators, are told to just do their jobs as honestly as they could.  Soldiers, who were, in fact, the enemy, were told to do their job, not to take money they weren’t entitled to take, and not to accuse innocent people.  It is interesting to note, that although both groups were widely hated because of what they did, John did not advise them to quit or to change jobs, but simply to do them honestly.

John then tells the people of the coming Messiah who will bring judgment as he separates the wheat (which is fruit) from the chaff (which is basically useless).  And he appealed to the people that they should hear the good news of the coming Messiah.

And, although an important part of the Advent message is a message of repentance and the need to get our hearts right before God, but John tells us that repentance is just the first step.  What comes next, producing fruit, is just as critical.  Fruit trees without fruit will be cut down and burned in the fire.  The wheat and the chaff will be separated, and the useless chaff burned in the fire.  John warns everyone, including us, that our purpose is to live a life of fruitfulness, to do our jobs well, but honestly, and to willingly share what we have with those who do not have.

But despite the Don Rickles style delivery, and despite all the talk about repentance, judgement, and burning chaff, John’s message ultimately is a message of hope.  Although John openly condemned the leaders of the church who put on a good show but used their position for their own benefit while abusing the elderly and the poor, John also made it plain that even those who were widely thought to be the enemies of Israel and the enemies of God, could seek repentance, receive forgiveness, and be restored and welcomed into to God’s family.

Don Rickles’ attacks could be absolutely scathing, but they included just enough truth to be funny.  John the Baptist’s delivery was just as, if not more abusive but as angry as offensive as it might have sounded to the rich, it was a beautiful song of welcome, forgiveness, and hope to the poor, the helpless, hopeless, and the outcasts.

As the followers of Jesus Christ, we are called to that same mission today.  To challenge the establishment, to confront power, to share what we have with those who are in need, and to sing God’s message of hope to the poor, the hungry, the helpless, the hopeless, the outsiders, and the outcasts.

No matter where we are, no matter who we are, that is Good News worth sharing.

 

 

 


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*You have been reading a message presented at Copeland Oaks in Sebring, Ohio 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.

Reversal of Fortune

“Reversal of Fortune”

September 30, 2018*

By Pastor John Partridge

Esther 7:1-10, 9:20-22                       Mark 9:38-50             James 5:13-20

Have you ever watched a gigantic reversal in a game that you were watching?  The Browns are losing but in the last seconds of the fourth quarter the Cardiac Kids would score two touchdowns and squeak out a win.  There have been games when the Indians drive in several home runs, or one grand slam in the bottom of the ninth.  Or some player on Jeopardy! Is in dead last, but then sweeps two or three entire categories, hits a daily double, bets everything, wins, and then put it all on the line in Final Jeopardy, and wins again, to come from behind and take home the prize money.

Hugh E. Keough once said, “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet.”

But sometimes the betting pool is wrong.  Sometimes, the unexpected happens.  Sometimes the underdog wins.  And that has everything to do with our stories from scripture today.

We begin in the book of Esther at the climax of her story.  Prior to where we begin, Haman, a high-ranking advisor to King Xerxes (pronounced Zerk-sees), convinced the king to sign an edict that would allow everyone in his kingdom to kill any Jew that they found and take their wealth, whatever it may be, for their own.  What Haman didn’t know, was that King Xerxes’ queen, Esther, was a Jew and she wasn’t about to sit idly by while this atrocity played itself out.  And so, she invited both Haman and the king to dinner, but chickened out and couldn’t bring herself to make the big announcement.  But then, she invited them both to a second dinner, and that is where we join the story. (Esther 7:1-10, 9:20-22)

7:1 So the king and Haman went to Queen Esther’s banquet, and as they were drinking wine on the second day, the king again asked, “Queen Esther, what is your petition? It will be given you. What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be granted.”

Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have found favor with you, Your Majesty, and if it pleases you, grant me my life—this is my petition. And spare my people—this is my request. For I and my people have been sold to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. If we had merely been sold as male and female slaves, I would have kept quiet, because no such distress would justify disturbing the king.”

King Xerxes asked Queen Esther, “Who is he? Where is he—the man who has dared to do such a thing?”

Esther said, “An adversary and enemy! This vile Haman!”

Then Haman was terrified before the king and queen. The king got up in a rage, left his wine and went out into the palace garden. But Haman, realizing that the king had already decided his fate, stayed behind to beg Queen Esther for his life.

Just as the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet hall, Haman was falling on the couch where Esther was reclining.

The king exclaimed, “Will he even molest the queen while she is with me in the house?”

As soon as the word left the king’s mouth, they covered Haman’s face. Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs attending the king, said, “A pole reaching to a height of fifty cubits [75 ft.] stands by Haman’s house. He had it set up for Mordecai, who spoke up to help the king.”

The king said, “Impale him on it!” 10 So they impaled Haman on the pole he had set up for Mordecai. Then the king’s fury subsided.

20 Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, 21 to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar 22 as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor.

Haman was descended from a tribe of people that had been almost wiped out by the people of Israel when they fought over, and settled into, the land that God had given them.  His hatred was for Ester’s uncle, Mordecai specifically, but also for all Jews everywhere, and he allowed his hatred to propose something truly evil and make it sound palatable and convincing to the king.  But God had put the right person, in the right place, at just the right moment.  As Mordecai had said, Esther was chosen by God “for just such a time as this.”  And suddenly the tables are turned, and the hunter becomes the hunted.  To make matters worse, Haman throws himself on the feet of Queen Esther to beg for his life just as the king returns to the room and it looks as if he is attacking her.  And before Haman leaves the room, they have already put a blindfold or a hangman’s hood over his face, and he is sentenced to die by being impaled on the same pole with which he had intended to kill Mordecai.

If you read the rest of the story, King Xerxes is unable to retract his earlier edict, but instead issues a second one that allows the Jews, wherever they are, to gather together and use whatever means necessary to defend themselves and, if anyone attacks them, the Jews get to keep the wealth of their attackers.    The moment that Haman had intended to watch his enemies die, became the moment of his own death and he dies on the pole that he had built for his enemy.  In the end, a day that was intended for the destruction of the Jews becomes a great victory instead.  It was a great reversal of fortune.  The unexpected happened, the underdog won.

This type of reversal of fortune is somewhat common in scripture because it is in the unlikely, the improbable, and the outright impossible that we most easily see the hand of God.  But, as we read the stories of the New Testament and the Gospels, we also see moments when the unexpected is not found in the miracles of God, but in the unexpected and expansive grace of God.  In Mark 9:38-50, the disciples come to Jesus because God has players on the field that aren’t on the team that the disciples thought they should be on.

38 “Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”

39 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, 40 for whoever is not against us is for us. 41 Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.

42 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea. 43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. 45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, 48 where

“‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’

49 Everyone will be salted with fire.

50 “Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”

First off, Jesus does the unexpected when he tells the disciples that there are others who follow Jesus, and who perform miracles in Jesus’ name, but who are not among the twelve disciples or among those that they know.  How can this be if Jesus told Peter that “on this rock I will build my church”?  How can followers of Jesus not follow Jesus?  But Jesus says that anyone who preaches the gospel is not their enemy.  Moreover, anyone who does good in the name of Jesus will be rewarded by God.

Conversely, Jesus says that God will punish those who do things that cause others, even children, to go astray.  We all know, many of us from painful experience, that it’s better to shut up, and be silent, than to say something stupid.  And Jesus make the same sort of point.  It’s better to lose a hand, or an eye, than to suffer in hell so even though doing the will of God and following the example and the teachings of Jesus may occasionally be inconvenient, or even painful, or costly, being inconvenienced is far better than being condemned to hell.

Jesus says, “everyone will be salted with fire.”  And the best way to understand that is to remember that gifts to God, sacrifices made to God, were burned on the altar.  And so, what Jesus is saying is that our inconveniences in following him, the sacrifices that we make, the trials that we endure, the pain that we suffer, in the name of Jesus are sacrifices that burn on the altar before God which ultimately purify us.

But what is that thing about salt losing its saltiness?

Remember that Matthew 5:13-16 says,

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

Taken together these scriptures tell us that the sacrifices that we make, in order to follow Jesus, the inconveniences that we experience, the suffering that we endure, these are the things that make us different than the people around us.  These are the things that reveal the works of God to the world around us.  These are the things that make us the salt of the earth.  And if we lose our saltiness, if we become just like everybody else, and look, and act, just like everyone else, then we also lose any ability that we had to change our culture, to change our world, for the better.

Those are lessons that were unexpected.

But why is all of this important?  Why do we want to be salted with fire?  Why do we want to be the salt of the earth?  Why do we want to change the world?  And in James 5:13-20, we find the answer.

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

19 My brothers and sisters, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring that person back, 20 remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins.

This passage if full of the miraculous and the unexpected.

Saying a prayer to an invisible and unseen God, whose temple doesn’t even have an idol, and that prayer has the power to heal the sick.  Expose yourself to potential pain and ridicule by confessing your sins in public, so that you can be healed.  And, James says, we do all of these things so that one life might be changed.  All of this is worthwhile, a multitude of sins can be erased, if just one person is rescued from death and returns to the ways of God.

This is the ultimate reversal of fortune.

The sinner, condemned to death, repents, returns to God, and is saved.  Life comes from death.  The world is changed for the better…  one life at a time.

And all of that happens because the followers of Jesus Christ are willing to lay their comfort, convenience, pain, and suffering on the altar and give it to God.  When we are willing to live our lives differently than the people and the culture around us, when we are willing to be salty, it is then that we can be seen.  It is then that the world, and the people around us can see God at work in us.  It is then that we are able to change the world, one life at a time, and be a part of God’s greatest reversal of fortune ever.  Rescuing the lost, restoring the condemned, and literally bringing life out of death.

That is certainly worth a little inconvenience and suffering.

Our inconvenience, pain, and suffering, in the name of Jesus, is the salt that will change the world.

Don’t ever be afraid to be salty.

“Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other.”


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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.

Unexpected Acts of Love

“Unexpected Acts of Love”

September 10, 2017

By John Partridge*

 

Exodus 12:1-14                      Romans 13:8-14                                 Matthew 18:15-20

 

How many of you own jewelry of one kind or another?

 

Most of us do.

 

Some of it is elaborate, ornate, and expensive, while some of the things that we use to adorn ourselves are simple, plastic, and cheap.  I have a cross that’s made of wood and bit of yarn.  I’ve seen others that came out of a vending machine at the grocery store for a quarter.  But regardless of their cost, many of the things that we wear include symbols that have meaning. And one of the odd things about the stories of the Bible are the times in which things that are ordinarily gruesome, terrible, and frightening are redeemed and transformed into symbols of something else entirely.  The cross is the most well-known example. With few, if any, exceptions the cross is among the most painful, gruesome, and horrific ways of dying. Merely the threat of crucifixion was enough to bring about the stubborn obedience of entire nations to Roman rule and law.  The cross was, absolutely, a clear and profoundly terrifying symbol of pain, suffering, and terror.  Few of us would wear a necklace with an electric chair, or a guillotine, or a gallows around our necks.  But the death of Jesus Christ transforms the meaning of the cross into a symbol of faith, hope, and love.

 

Somehow, in the wisdom of God, this symbol of horror becomes instead a symbol of something else entirely, and this one act of suffering and death is revealed to be a completely unexpected act of love.

 

As we continue reading the story of Moses and the people of Israel in Exodus 12:1-14, we see another well-known example of this.

 

12:1 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year. Tell the whole community of Israel that on the tenth day of this month each man is to take a lamb for his family, one for each household. If any household is too small for a whole lamb, they must share one with their nearest neighbor, having taken into account the number of people there are. You are to determine the amount of lamb needed in accordance with what each person will eat. The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats.Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight.Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover.

12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the Lord. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.

14 “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord—a lasting ordinance. 

 

Darkness, frogs, lice, locusts, blood, and even death are sent to plague Egypt and while all of these things are terrible, they become for the nation of Israel, symbols of hope and signs that remind us, even today, of God’s faithfulness. And in this passage we see the slaughter of year-old lambs and goats and their blood being painted on the doorframes of houses.  In any other context, painting houses with blood would be offensive, threatening, disgusting, and terrible.  Today, the perpetrators would likely be charged with a hate crime, but in this particular case, the blood of these slain animals becomes a mark of the faith of God’s people and a symbol of God’s love that endures for thousands of years.

 

More than that, the plagues of Egypt themselves, including the death of every firstborn, while haunting and terrible, are not signs of God’s hatred of Egypt or a suggestion that God is somehow evil, but instead are symbols of God’s love even for Pharaoh and the people of Egypt.  Over and over again, God demonstrates his power and authority, granting second chance after second chance, in an attempt to bring about their repentance.  God could have just as easily started with the destruction of Egypt but, in his mercy, provides advance warnings through Moses, and repeated non-lethal demonstrations of his sovereignty so that even the Egyptians might accept him and be saved.

 

And even though we might struggle with elements that seem to be negative and difficult, we see something similar as we read Matthew 18:15-20.

 

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

18 “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

 

None of us like conflict and confrontation, and what Jesus tells us to do is exactly that.  When we see a follower of Jesus Christ that is falling into sin, we are called to go to them and point out their error.  The intent of this confrontation is not to be angry, or vindictive, or to gloat over their sin, but to call them to repentance in a way that is loving so that they can be restored to the body of Christ.  The first effort is totally private and done in such a way that, should they see their error, no one else would need to know.  You saw it, pointed it out to them, and if they recognize it, repent, and change, then it’s all over and done.  The second attempt is nearly as private, but lets the fallen person know that others in the community are aware of what they have done, and they are given a second chance to repent and stop doing whatever it is that they have done.  And still there is a third chance given where the sin is made known to the entire community of faith and still there is time to repent and to be restored.  But should that fail, then the fallen can be expelled from the church.  All along, the goal is never about confrontation, or humiliation, or ruining reputations, but the goal is always to be caring and loving, and to bring about repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration.

 

Paul sums up the commands of God in a wonderful way in Romans 13:8-14 where he says…

 

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.

 

11 And do this, understanding the present time: The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. 13 Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. 14 Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh.

 

Paul’s summary of the law of God is one of the simplest to remember in all of scripture. “Whoever loves, has fulfilled the law.” Boom.  That’s it.  Every commandment of God can be summarized with this one simple statement because “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.”  Although they are important, there’s no need for us to get all wrapped up in trying to remember rules and laws because, in the end, all of them are accomplished if we love one another and seek the best interests of others.

 

What is unexpected, when we look at the examples that we read earlier, is how often the loving thing, done in the best interests of others, can sometimes appear to be quite the opposite.  Our children thought that we were terrible parents when we said ‘No” to their requests for candy before dinner or caffeinated soda before bed.  Our teens were furious with us when we grounded them for breaking the rules or refused to allow them to go out with their friends the night before a big test.  Darkness, lice, locusts, boils, and death certainly don’t seem to be the acts of a loving God, and yet, all of these were an attempt to draw people, both Israelite and Egyptian, into the kingdom of God.  Confrontation, accusation, humiliation, and even excommunication do not seem like loving acts, but the goal, in every case, is to bring about restoration and reconciliation.

 

To a toddler, a swat across the hands does not seem to be a loving act, but to the adult who stopped curious fingers from touching a hot stove, that mild act of violence was understood to be a loving rescue.

 

Sometimes love is unexpectedly painful.

 

Jesus sought to do what was best for all of us at the expense of his own comfort and even at the expense of his life.

 

And our calling is to pursue what is in the best interests of others even when it might seem, on the surface, to be something less than loving.

 

“Whoever loves, has fulfilled the law.”

 

We may find that love is expressed in some unexpected ways.

 

But love must always come first.

 

_________
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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.

 

An Invitation to Something More

“An Invitation to Something More”

February 28, 2016

By John Partridge*

 

Scripture: Isaiah 55:1-9                 1 Corinthians 10:1-13                 Luke 13:1-9

 

We are nearing spring, and have already entered the time when many of us will find special envelopes in our mailboxes.  You’ve seen this kind of mail before and you recognize it instantly.  Most of you will know what I am talking about even as I begin to describe them.  The mail we will receive is not your ordinary cheap white paper but a thicker, richer, more expensive kind of paper with visible fibers in it.  The addresses are often not just typed, but are handwritten, sometimes with rich script and calligraphy and occasionally with special raised lettering.  The enclosures are just as special.  Inside is not just a piece of paper, but a notecard printed on heavy bond cardstock, often with special embossed seals pressed into the paper and colorful printed stickers to seal the flaps.  There are also included, on another piece of cardstock, printed directions and also a stamped, pre-addressed return envelope that also includes yet another piece of embossed and printed cardstock.

Whew.  Just describing it is almost enough to make me tired.

Of course, by now most of us have clearly recognized that what has arrived in our mailboxes, often just by the weight and feel of the envelope, is an invitation to a wedding or to a graduation of some sort.  These can both be grand events, and even when they are done inexpensively, they are moments of celebration as young men and women mark important moments in life as they transition from student to working adults, or from singles to couples and families.  These moments are so important to us that we invite our family and friends to share and celebrate them with us.

And that brings us to our message from scripture today.  There are moments in scripture that are much like those embossed envelopes that we receive in the mail.  Special moments and special invitations like these are intended to get our attention and to ask for our attendance and participation.  We begin in Isaiah 55:1-9 where God invites the thirsty…

55:1 “Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a ruler and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations you do not know will come running to you,
because of the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

This entire passage is an invitation from God and is not just an invitation to the thirsty.  Over and over again, God invites us to come to him, to listen to him, and to seek him.  God invites us to buy what is good without cost instead of wasting our money, time and sweat on useless things that never satisfy us.  In this invitation, God tells us that there is more to life than money and struggle and if we take the time to listen to him, we will find life.

Throughout this entire passage, in many different ways, God invites us… to belong.

But belonging can come at a price and in 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Paul warns the church that there is a difference between participating and following.

10:1 For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.” We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.We should not test Christ, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. 10 And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel.

11 These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the culmination of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! 13 No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Paul reminds the church that there were a great many people that travelled with Moses through the wilderness.  They all witnessed many miracles, they ate God’s manna, they saw the Red Sea divided and walked through the middle, they ate together, drank together, learned from Moses together, and heard God’s voice together, and yet, God was not pleased with many of them because they did not do what God asked them to do.

In the movie Apollo 13, the flight director for Mission Control, Gene Franz, famously says, “Failure is not an option.”  But in this letter to the church in Corinth, Paul is saying quite the opposite.  Paul wants the people to know that failure is an option.  It is entirely possible to show up in church, to participate in church, and yet still not do the things that God wants us to do.  Even so, failure is not certain.  We each have the opportunity to choose whether or not we do the things that God commands us to do.

And finally, in Luke 13:1-9 we find two more invitations.

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”

Luke begins with Jesus answering a question about men who had been murdered by Pontius Pilate while they were in the Temple making sacrifices to God.  The question in many minds was what horrible things these men must have done in order to be punished so horribly by God but Jesus turns that thought in a completely different direction.  Jesus says that neither the men that were murdered by Pilate, nor the eighteen men and women who were crushed when a tower collapsed upon them were killed because of their sin.  But all the same, we will all, sooner or later, end up dead.

Well, that’s an encouraging message.

Sooner or later we will all be dead.

You wouldn’t find that on any office walls or motivational posters outside of a funeral home.

But that isn’t the end of Jesus’ message.  Jesus says that sooner or later we will all end up dead… unless we repent.  Of course our repentance will not make us immortal in this life, but this is, from the lips of Jesus, an invitation to life.  An invitation to something more, a life that is more, a life that is more than anything this mortal life has to offer.

And then Jesus tells a story about a fig tree.

In that story, a parable, a tree is growing but although it is in the garden, and although it is green and has leaves and seems otherwise healthy, it is not producing figs.  The owner of the tree is understandably upset.  He planted the tree, watered it, and cared for it with the expectation that it would produce fruit.  When it does not, he is ready to cut it up and use it for firewood so that perhaps another tree can take its place.  The gardener begs for one more year, one more year in which he will give it special care and attention but if it does not produce fruit after that, then the tree is doomed.

What Jesus is saying is that he has planted us in his garden with the expectation that we will produce fruit.  He plants us, waters us, and cares for us so that we can accomplish what we were intended to do.  Even if we do not initially do as he expects, he gives us extra time, he pours out blessings on us and fertilizes us but, after a while, he will eventually plant someone else in our place.

Jesus invites us to repent, but true repentance reveals itself in fruitfulness.

And so, Jesus invites us to produce fruit.

Life on earth is predictable.  We are born, we live, and we die.  But God wants us to know that there is more.

God invites us to come to him, to listen to him, and to seek him.

God invites us to…belong.

But there is more to belonging than just showing up.

God invites us to do more than take up space, God wants more for us than that.

God invites us to repent and live.

God wants us to have a new kind of life, a life that lasts forever.

But true repentance is more than just living in the garden, soaking up sunshine, and drinking up the water that God is pouring out.

God invites us to fruitfulness.

All of this is a journey and all of it together teaches us that there is more to life than living and dying.  There is more to life than taking up showing up and taking up space.  God wants more for our lives than that.  God wants us to follow him, to live for him, and to produce fruit for him.

Our invitation may not come in a fancy envelope or have embossed lettering, but God invites us to a life that is richer and fuller than what we had before.  God invites us to a life that continues beyond the boundary of death.  God invites us to share what we have with others so that we can produce fruit.

God invites us to… something more.

How will you answer him?

 

 

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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 http://www.scribd.com/Pastor John Partridge. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.

From Fear to Fruitfulness

“From Fear to Fruitfulness”
December 13, 2015
(Third Sunday of Advent)
By John Partridge

Scripture: Zephaniah 3:14-20    Philippians 4:4-7    Luke 3:7-18

We begin today with an easy question.

Have you ever been afraid?

Almost certainly, every single one of us can answer that “Yes” we have been afraid. But after that simple answer, things quickly get a lot more difficult.

We have all been afraid at one time or another. We might have been afraid of a bully, afraid of losing, afraid of looking foolish in front of our family or friends, when we were expecting babies or held them for the first time we were afraid of what the future might hold, we have been afraid as we watched loved ones spend their last moments on earth or as we attended their funerals and were forced to face a future without them, we were afraid as we sent our children off to school for the first time, or watched them leave for college, or move out of our homes as they started lives and families of their own. There are a great many moments in our lives when fear has crept in.

For the moment, I want you to find one of those places of fear inside of yourself and remember what it was like. Hold on to that feeling for just a moment, and imagine what the people of Israel might have felt as Zephaniah proclaims that God is about to bring judgment upon the nations of the world, Including Judah and Israel, because of their unbelief. At that moment, during the life of the prophet Jeremiah, the Scythians, a nation that had migrated out of what is now Russia, perhaps similar to the Mongols who would come later, had crossed into their nation and had destroyed the fortresses of both Ashdod and Ashkelon and only stopped at the Egyptian border when Pharaoh Psamtik paid them off. Soon, the Babylonians would rise to power, defeat the Assyrians and would also come into the lands of Canaan destroying cities, killing and capturing anyone who got in their way.

Fear was real.

And so, into that environment, Zephaniah pours gasoline on the fire of their fear by proclaiming God’s coming judgment. But… before he is finished, God also gives hope for the future with these words: (Zephaniah 3:14-20).

14 Sing, Daughter Zion;
shout aloud, Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
Daughter Jerusalem!
15 The Lord has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
16 On that day
they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
17 The Lord your God is with you,
the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
but will rejoice over you with singing.”

18 “I will remove from you
all who mourn over the loss of your appointed festivals,
which is a burden and reproach for you.
19 At that time I will deal
with all who oppressed you.
I will rescue the lame;
I will gather the exiles.
I will give them praise and honor
in every land where they have suffered shame.
20 At that time I will gather you;
at that time I will bring you home.
I will give you honor and praise
among all the peoples of the earth
when I restore your fortunes
before your very eyes,”
says the Lord.

Although judgment is coming, be glad. Although things look grim, do not fear. Never again will God leave you. Never again will you fear harm because God is the Mighty Warrior. God will deal with those who oppress you. God will rescue you and gather those who have been scattered. God says, “I will bring you home.”

Even though God’s people are afraid, and even though the worst is yet to come, God is already moving them toward hope and restoration.

Interestingly, in Luke 3:7-18, as John the Baptist proclaims the coming of the Messiah, his message is very similar. John proclaims the coming of judgment but also offers helpful instruction… and hope.

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

11 John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

I cannot remember a single time when I have taken classes on preaching or public speaking, when we have been advised to begin a message by openly insulting and taunting our listeners. In fact, I am virtually certain that this is a bad idea most of the time. But this is exactly what John does. I told the children last week that John was probably considered, by most people, to be pretty weird and this is yet another example of that. John begins by calling everyone snakes, and begins talking about judgment and the wrath of God.
According to John, no one can be saved because they were born in the church, born to people who went to church, or because they themselves go to church. For John, the only real measure of godliness is the fruit that grows out of repentance.

Today, some of us would almost certainly have a follow-up question because we wonder what the fruit of repentance would look like, and the people in the crowd felt exactly the same way. John’s answer to that very question is to share what you have with people who don’t have any. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked. But even that isn’t enough because some people want to know specifics. Tax collectors, who were widely considered to be cheats, scoundrels, and collaborating with the enemy, are told to just do their jobs as honestly as they could. Soldiers, who were, in fact, the enemy, were told to do their job, not to take money they weren’t entitled to take, and not to accuse innocent people. It is interesting to note, that although both of these groups were widely hated because of what they did, John did not advise them to quit or to change jobs, but simply to do them honestly.

John then tells the people of the coming Messiah who will bring judgment as he separates the wheat (which is fruit) from the chaff (which is basically useless). Overall, John encouraged, admonished, advised and appealed to the people that they should hear the good news of the coming Messiah.

As we have been working our way through the Advent season, we have spoken often of repentance and the need to get our hearts right before God, but John tells us that repentance is just the first step. What comes next, producing fruit, is just as critical. Fruit trees without fruit will be cut down and burned in the fire. The wheat and the chaff will be separated and the useless chaff burned in the fire. John warns everyone, including us, that our purpose is to live a life of fruitfulness, to do our jobs well, but honestly, and to willingly share what we have with those who do not have.

But just in case we were still a little unclear on what a life of fruitfulness would look like, the Apostle Paul provides a little more detail in Philippians 4:4-7.

4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Paul’s addition to John’s teaching is to rejoice and give thanks always for the things that God has done and for the things that God is doing. But Paul also says that our gentleness should be obvious to everyone around us, and that is a harder thing for some of us to do. In our culture, many of us have found that weakness is scorned and strength is honored and so we, both men and women, have often cultivated a sort of public fierceness in order to appear strong. Paul’s instruction reminds us that gentleness is also necessary. Jesus was a stone mason. He worked with his hands and was no stranger to hard labor. Jesus was no wimp and was not afraid to defy the Temple guards as he overturned tables and stared down mobs that didn’t like his teaching. But at the same time, Jesus was known for his gentleness and self-control with women and children.

Additionally, the followers of Jesus Christ should not worry about anything but instead spend their time praying about their problems and giving thanks for what God was doing. Paul says that when we do these things, then we will find peace that is far beyond all human understanding.

And so the road that we travel from fear to fruitfulness may not be easy, but it ends in a truly wonderful place.

It is no coincidence that at the end of that journey, the person that we find is the same one of whom the angels sang…

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14, KJV)

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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 http://www.scribd.com/Pastor John Partridge. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.