“The Eternal Surprise”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:

Jeremiah 20:7-13
Romans 5:12-15
Matthew 10:24-33

“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor is a servant above his master. It is sufficient for the student that he become like his teacher and the servant like his master.” These words of Jesus, which begin Sunday’s Gospel lesson, are not only palatable, they are readily accepted teachings of Christianity. Matthew records them fairly early in Jesus’ ministry. According to John, Jesus repeated them on the night of His betrayal, when He washed the disciples’ feet. Most of us are up to at least the ideal of becoming more and more like Jesus.

The next part of Sunday’s lesson, however, makes the prospect less interesting — certainly less appealing — in fact, downright frightening! Jesus points out that He is not exactly treated in the kindest way by everyone and suggests that, if that is true for the Teacher, what is likely to happen to the student?

Jesus had just provided the disciples with the power to heal injury, cure illness, and tell demons where to go. He had also charged them to go and preach that the Kingdom of God is at hand. I would guess that they were all fired up with the prospect of wielding that power and proclaiming His Word. These words would have cooled them down considerably. It’s one thing to go around performing miracles and preaching the Good News; it is quite another to be criticized, perhaps even condemned for it. We should note that, at this point in Jesus’ ministry, they had no idea how far that condemnation would take Jesus, but by the time Matthew wrote about it, some of them had gone that far themselves!

In the lesson, Jesus refers to the fact that people were accusing Him of using the power of the devil. Some even called Him “Beelzebul” (lord of flies or lord of dung), a name used for the devil. He poses the questions that, if they are calling Him such names, what will they call the disciples? Then Jesus tells them not to be afraid of people who can only talk and do little physical things like killing them. They should fear the One who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna. A bishop once went to visit a cleric under his charge, who was something less than successful. He noted that the pastor never did anything constructive, and never said anything that might be considered challenging or controversial. The cleric responded that he was afraid of being criticized. The bishop asked, “If you are going to live by fear, which do you fear more — gossip, or God?”

Sunday’s first lesson comes from a man who is no stranger to criticism, gossip and name calling. Jeremiah had a rough row to hoe. Unlike the disciples, he had no good news to preach — only bad news. Every time he opened his mouth, woe and doom came out. When he tried to keep his mouth closed, he was something like the character in “Alien” who had the little critter inside his chest, thumping around trying to get out. Jeremiah wrote, “His Word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot.” Jeremiah eventually turned from complaining to God to trusting Him. He knew that in the long run, it was not his persecutors who would prevail, but his God.

God’s way of prevailing is a constant surprise. When Jesus told His disciples to fear the One who can destroy body and soul in Gehenna, do you suppose that they pictured Him coming to a day when He and the Romans and other earthly powers would be in conflict? Did they imagine Him waving some fiery sword, destroying His enemies? They may very well have. We should never forget that He had that option. There is nothing that humanity has ever done — not even in Hiroshima, that God can’t do better — or is it worse!

St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about God’s surprising way. Some things make sense. Some things everybody knows. For instance, a man built his house on top of a huge cliff overlooking the ocean. Because the ocean side of the property was extremely dangerous — a sheer drop for hundreds of feet, he had a fence built right on the edge, so that no one would ever accidentally fall off. He constantly reminded his grandchildren and their friends never to climb over the fence. One day, his grandson asked, “Grandpa, where do you go when you go over the fence.” Grandpa answered, “Down!” That’s the way it is — everybody knows — if you step over the edge of a cliff, you go down.

St. Paul wrote that ever since mankind stepped over the edge of sin, the only prospect that the future has held is the dull thud at the bottom. In other words, the fall into sin is just that — a fall. The only difference between one person’s life and that of another is the height of the cliff or length of the fall. The sudden stop at the bottom is the same for everyone.

Paul described sin as the “transgression,” the “going beyond” or “stepping over.” God said not to climb over the fence, but we wanted to know where you go when you go over, and now we know. Picture, if you can, the entire history of mankind as one man on this definitively downward journey. Imagine, as he is traveling, someone handing him a book titled “How Not To Fall.” Within the book, he finds all kinds of information on how to behave properly during the days and nights between the birth canal and the thud. In his foolishness, he imagines that it is actually a book on how to fly.

He thinks that, if he can behave as if he isn’t falling, he won’t be. There are only two things wrong with this. First, the directions are impossible to follow — he finds himself grasping at things that are above him. Consequently, the book only serves to remind him, again and again, of his pitiful condition and continual descent. Second, even if he could follow every direction perfectly, he can’t go back and change that first step. His would be a beautiful fall to behold, an enviable one for all fellow-fallers, but the thud is still coming. This book, if you haven’t guessed already, is the law.

I am going to stop the fable now, because I will quickly be out of space. Suffice it to say that into that scene of human history, Another has entered — not a faller, but a Flyer — One who never took the first step, but took the journey anyway. He overtook mankind on the descent and took the thud head on, transforming it into a gateway to eternity. Jesus never picked up that sword to send His enemies into a fiery future. He picked up a cross and died for them.

St. Paul discovered God’s grace — His eternal surprise. Mankind has always thought that God built the humongous hole into which we fell. Jesus came to remind us that He is the One who built the fence. It was the great and glorious idea of the faller (Paul called him Adam) to climb over, after God had warned him not to. All the way down, God keeps calling out to us to trust Him, but the way of the faller is to blame God for the predicament, and to keep trying to fly on his own. In the end, however, Adam’s selfishness is no match for God’s generosity.

Unlike death, the thud that comes as the logical result of the transgression, God’s grace comes illogically, unmerited, unearned, at first even unwanted. It is His free gift. I said earlier that the disciples had no way of knowing just how far the condemnation of Jesus’ enemies would take Him, but they found out. To their amazement, they also found out that the hand of friendship He extended to the world — to His enemies — would not be withdrawn even when they drove nails into it. This is the God He told them to fear more than those who can kill the body. He is the God with awesome, fiery powers at His disposal, but who chooses to give His even more awesome love to us. Paul discovered the eternal surprise of God’s grace and, like Jeremiah, couldn’t hold it in. I have discovered it. You have discovered it. I won’t keep quiet about it. Will you?

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