“The problem is thorns, but the point is grace”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:

Ezekiel 2:1-5
2 Corinthians 12:7-10
Mark 6:1-6

In each of the three Scripture readings for Sunday, the main character is under some kind of tension. God tells Ezekiel to go and speak His Word to the Israelites in Babylon. It sounds like a good enough job, until God describes the Israelites: “a rebellious nation…in revolt against me…obstinate and stubborn…a rebellious house.” Even God’s concluding comment doesn’t exactly build Ezekiel’s confidence: “And whether they listen or fail to listen–for they are a rebellious house–they will know that a prophet has been among them.”

In the Epistle lesson, St. Paul tells the Corinthians about a nagging physical ailment–a “thorn in the flesh”–which he has asked God three times to remove. God has not seen fit to remove it, so it continues to harass and weaken the Apostle.

Then, in the Gospel lesson, Jesus comes up against some very prejudiced people. Before He even arrives and starts teaching, they already “know” that He has nothing to offer them. They have decided that He has no new wisdom or teaching for them and they refuse to believe in Him.

Not one of these three succumbs to the pressure. They do not shake a fist at God or become bitter and resentful. They do not become either self-indulgent crybabies, wallowing in self-pity, or nasty hard-nosed cynics.

They all seem to understand that difficulties, hard times, rejection and opposition can actually bring out the best in us. An interesting experiment, actually a demonstration, was conducted in a Swedish cafe by a philosopher named Lewin. He and a group of scholars sat down in the cafe for coffee, pastries and philosophical discussion. For several hours, they kept ordering and reordering coffee and various cakes, rolls or whatever. Lewin noticed that the waiter did not write any of this down.

Eventually, one of them called out: “Die Rechnung, bitte.” Despite the hours that had passed, the variety of items ordered, and the lack of a written record, the waiter provided a precise reckoning of their accounts. He knew just what each person had ordered and how much he owed. Lewin recognized an important principle in this everyday event. About a half-hour later, he called the waiter back and asked him to repeat the accounting as he had done before. The waiter was outraged. How could he possibly do that? They had already paid the bill, and he could no longer remember.

Before they paid the bill, the waiter was able to keep the tallies in mind for hours. Thirty minutes after the bill was paid, the memory was gone. From the moment the first item was ordered, a kind of tension arose. It kept the waiter on his toes and kept his mind on the important matters of accurate accounting. Once the bill was paid, the tension dissipated. When the tension dissipated, so did the memory. This kind of tension may be a very minor “thorn in the flesh,” but (pardon the pun) I think you can get the point.

Another example of making the best of a difficult situation comes from a coal-miner’s son in Corbin, Kentucky. This young, athletically inclined boy returned home from school every day instead of playing ball. As the oldest of many children, he had responsibilities at home. While his father worked in the mine and his mother worked at the shirt factory, he worked in the kitchen preparing meals for the family. The ever-present chore took from him many of the joys of youth, but he chose to make the best of it. In fact, young Harland became very good at cooking–especially at frying chicken. Eventually, that particular fare, shared at the Sanders’ table, was shared by people all around the world. I seriously doubt that the title of “Colonel” was awarded to him because of his successful battle with a trying situation, but none can doubt that he made the most of it.

St. Paul learned that the only way to progress spiritually is to progress from grace to more grace. When he asked to have his “thorn” removed, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul’s response to that was, “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” In the old days, when he was still known as Saul, he had sought approval and reward for his own religiosity, and had actually gone against God. Now he had received the free gift of God’s undeserved favor. If his “thorn” kept him humble as an ambassador of that grace to others, it only meant an even greater measure for himself.

Jesus’ difficulties in the Gospel lesson are with his one-time friends, neighbors, perhaps even family. When He begins preaching in His “own country,” people remember Him as the kid down the street, Joe-the-carpenter’s boy, and they show Him no respect.

Professor William Muehl once visited a fine ancestral home in Virginia. He followed the aged owner, last of a distinguished colonial family, as she proudly showed him through her home. An ancient rifle above the fireplace intrigued him, and he asked if he could take it down and examine it. She replied, “Oh, I am afraid that wouldn’t be safe. You see it is all loaded and primed to fire. My great-grandfather kept it there in constant readiness against the moment when he might strike a blow for the freedom of the colonies.” Professor Muehl said, “Then he died before the Revolution came?” “No,” she answered, “he lived to a ripe old age and died in 1802, but he never had confidence in George Washington. You see he knew him as a boy and didn’t believe he could ever lead an army.”

The people “back home” had a similar prejudice toward Jesus. They doubted His credentials and all but ridiculed Him out of town. His grace was sufficient for them, but they would have none of it. His response to their biases and prejudging was one of understanding. He made His famous observation that “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” Unlike many people, Jesus believed that His calling was more important than the honor attached to it. His task was to freely share His Father’s love with all people and to tell the Good News to everyone. He did not retaliate against the rejection of His countrymen. He went on teaching among the villages.

Jesus had a mission. He was sent to seek and to save the lost. Unbelieving friends and family could not dissuade Him from His mission. Neither could a kangaroo court. Neither could the bizarre combination of a verdict of innocent and a penalty of death. Neither could the nails, the spear, the betrayal by one close friend, the denial by another and the desertion of 10 more. Neither could the fact that His Father let it all happen. His grace was sufficient for all that and His grace is sufficient for you and for me.

Do we take Jesus for granted? Have we decided in advance that He has nothing new to teach us? Are the “thorns” in our flesh disabling us? Could it be that our “thorns” are too small? Maybe they are so insignificant that we are lax and uncaring–not needing to make the most of them or find sufficient grace for them. Let’s be about our Brother’s business.

A survey by the Travelers Insurance Company once showed that it is not the ice, snow or driving rain that caused traffic fatalities. Approximately 80 percent of that year’s 52,000 highway deaths occurred on clear days with dry roads.

I do not suggest that this is a reason to pray for rain, nor do I recommend that we should pray for bigger thorns to get us off our apathies and on with the mission God has given us. I do suggest, however, that God’s grace is indeed sufficient, and that our expectations of what He can do with us are far too small. I also sincerely pray that the entire family of God that reads this “Edit-O-Earl” might be as big a surprise to Jesus as were his former neighbors. May He be as surprised by our faith and witness as He was by their unbelief!

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