Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson. When Pastor Fedderson wrote this and the next few devotions back in 1998, our church was following a different set of Scripture lessons for our Sunday services and that is why these lessons don’t correspond with what we will be reading this coming Sunday.
Sunday’s Epistle lesson begins with these words from Paul to the Thessalonians: “Finally, brothers, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you.” Is the Gospel — “the message of the Lord” — honored today? Is it honored by you?
I think the word “honor” is a sadly under-used word today. It may be that there isn’t much of it around, but it may also be that we have grown away from a genuine appreciation of what it means. “Honor your father and mother” is not only more eloquent than, “Obey your parents,” it is also much deeper and more meaningful. Then, again, maybe the word has grown out of use precisely because of its depth and force of meaning.
Some words are subtly avoided because they require something from us that we are not willing to give. The words “faithfulness,” “confidence,” and “perseverance” come to mind. Forms of all three of those words also appear in Sunday’s epistle lesson.
Sunday’s Gospel lesson reports that the Pharisees once asked Jesus when the kingdom of God would come. Jesus answered, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” How confident do you feel about answering such a question by pointing to yourself and saying, “Here it is! The kingdom of God is right here”?
Jesus went on at that moment to speak not to the Pharisees, but to His disciples: “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. Men will tell you, ‘There He is!’ or ‘Here He is!’ Do not go running off after them. For the Son of Man in His day will be like the lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.”
What a powerful image and picture that is: “like the lightning which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other!” I think about the top of the hill above our house — one of highest points in the area. I have stopped my car up there a time or two when the lightning seemed to zap from one side of the horizon to the other. Imagine the power of the electricity in such a spectacular display! It would be enough, if we could harness it, to put many an electric utility out of business for years. Then I think about Jesus’ meaning — His simultaneous arrival from one side of the horizon to the other, from sea to shining sea. I remember how small I am, and I am humbled by my finite and spatial limitations.
The truth is that most of us prefer mental gymnastics over dealing with the first part of the lesson. Like the Pharisees, we would prefer to sit down in deep scientific or theological discussions over the power of a lightning bolt or the comparative complexities of things finite to those that are infinite. We prefer that by far to the challenge that Jesus poses when He says that the kingdom of God is within us.
Faced with the reality of that, many turn glib and say, “Well, if the kingdom is in me, it’s in trouble!” The last half of Sunday’s Gospel lesson is particularly unsettling. Jesus went on to say that when the Son of Man comes, people will be consumed with “business as usual,” just as they were on the day Noah entered the ark, or the day Lot left Sodom! Ouch!
The Gospel Lesson is eleven verses. The first five are separated from the last five by one lonely verse. And it is, in many ways, a lonely verse: “But first He (the Son of Man) must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”
Often, when Jesus was questioned by the Pharisees, Sadducees and priests, they were looking more for a way to trap Him in a false teaching than for an enlightened answer. He frequently turned the table on them by asking His own probing question. Occasionally, as in this lesson, He reminded them that we cannot press our ideas of the current world order onto the next life. The lonely verse in the center of the lesson opens up a whole new avenue of thought: God’s thought. This Messiah would not wreak suffering and havoc on His enemies. This Messiah would suffer.
This Christ would die and, although He did not mention it here, He would rise again. The Resurrection changes everything. It blasts our attitude toward death. It changes both our outlook on life and the way we live it. As William Willimon once said, the resurrection of the dead is God’s reworking of everything we’ve messed up: “It’s a whole, new, God-created ball game to which the old rules don’t apply!”
If the message is going to be spread and honored, we need to start with ourselves — with our own commitment to hear and study the Word and to receive the Sacrament. We need to understand and fulfill God’s mission and ministry.
Technically, this Sunday’s Old Testament lesson ends at verse 2a. That means we are supposed to read the first half of the verse, but not the second. God says, in that first half, “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” That’s a wonderful image all by itself, but why wouldn’t we read the rest? It goes on: “And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” Now, that’s delightful.
The image immediately brings to mind letting our Labrador out of a pen. He is still young enough to have almost limitless energy and it explodes through his youthful, athletic body the second he comes out of the gate. He leaps into the air and then leaps and leaps and leaps again. There is an unbounded joy there that simply has to be released in some form of uproarious activity.
Isn’t it sad that we Christians often accept the lowest common denominator as the standard for our involvement in the Word of God? Some church leaders look for the least they can do and still be held in high regard by their fellow members (like college students who iron only the front and cuffs of a shirt). Others want to know how seldom they can attend worship, to say nothing of Bible classes, and still be members in good standing. What does any of that have to do with a living relationship with the living God? Is the message of the Lord honored in any of that?
The last verse of Sunday’s epistle lesson is, “May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance.” God’s love and Christ’s perseverance — now there are two sure-cures for our heart disease!
When I think of God’s love, the first thing that comes to mind is His love for the lost. It is a love epitomized in Jesus’ story of the prodigal’s father, waiting and watching for the lost one to come up the road and then running to him with a father’s welcome and a fatted-calf celebration.
When I think of Jesus’ perseverance, I think of His silence before false-accusations, His lack of retaliation against those who mocked, spit, slapped, pressed thorns, drove nails and thrust the spear. I think of myself — the reason for His perseverance and sacrifice, and the recipient of the Father’s all-encompassing love.
May the message be spread rapidly and be honored. May the Lord direct our hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. And may the sun of righteousness rise on us, with healing in its wings, so that we leap like calves released from the stall!