Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
All three of this Sunday’s lessons have something to say about knowledge or understanding. All three lend some support to the folksy wisdom of Will Rogers that is quoted above. Jeremiah thought he knew something, until the Lord showed him otherwise. The lesson from James is part of his own answer to a question he had posed three verses earlier: “Who is wise and understanding among you?” In the Gospel lesson, Jesus gives one of His many capsule teachings about Himself–a one-line lesson on “Everything you always wanted to know about Jesus, but were afraid to ask.” He says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and after three days rise again.” Mark observes that even after they knew, they still didn’t understand, and they still were afraid to ask!
I do not pretend to know everything about Christianity, and what I do know is from my interpretation and understanding of God’s Word on the subject, as a Lutheran Christian and ordained Pastor. Did you notice how I slipped the word “understanding” in there? In this setting, my understanding is, as James says, “from above.” What I am sharing with words is something that defies explanation–it is my faith. One thing I try to do is help people set aside, at least momentarily, the preconceptions they already have about God: “all,” as Will Rogers says, “we know that ain’t true.”
This can be very difficult to do. Some of our preconceptions are treasured very highly. We feel hurt or even angry if anyone tries to mess with them. If we formulated our ideas about God from a few visits or even years of Sunday school, between the ages of four and eight, we have very powerful feelings about them. The same thing holds true if we came to our knowledge in a confirmation class and, for many years have never let anything challenge or mature it–not even our own expanded understanding of the world and people all around us.
Some people formulate their knowledge so concretely that it holds their god in a box where he cannot get out to confront them or even love them. The same thing holds true for those whose god is merely a concept, grand idea, or impersonal force. People are very comfortable with such a god because he, or should I say, it doesn’t mess with their everyday living.
Commenting on these three lessons, Glendon E. Harris once offered the following illustration: “A gosling has an inborn frame of reference of how to shape its relations to its mother. But the baby goose does not know what its mother looks like. It takes the first big moving thing it sees after its birth to be its mother. If, under unusual circumstances, this thing happens to be a human being or a canoe, the young goose takes this person or canoe for its mother and attaches to this strange substitute all its baby instincts. It behaves as if it supposed itself to be a human baby or a small canoe. Other birds are not deceived so easily. The reason is not that they are more intelligent than a goose. On the contrary, most of them are less intelligent. But in recompense, they have more instinctive guidance. Their inborn frame of reference of what their mothers look like is distinct enough to make mistakes unlikely. Geese have fewer instincts than any other birds, and the scheme the gosling has of its mother provides no more than the following indications: ‘Mother must be something bigger than I am; something moving.'”
He added that, “In some ways we humans are like the confused goslings. We have an ‘instinct’ of God our creator, but our frame of reference isn’t adequate to properly identify God and so we attach ourselves to ‘anything bigger’ that catches our attention. That’s perhaps why so many are attracted to cults and strange philosophies–anything bigger that hints of God.”
The sad part, of course, is that some people never come to know and trust the gracious God who loves, accepts and forgives them. They just keep following some dumb old canoe, never learning to fly or be free. A missionary in the Philippines wrote about the “sneaky animism” that surrounds the lives of new Christians, especially when a loved one dies. Burial traditions are different in different cultures. But some naive loved ones couldn’t resist following an old tradition that had its roots in the notion that the spirit of a departed loved one must be appeased, even when the departed was a Lutheran pastor!
The most difficult preconception about God is the one with which we must all deal every day. It is that “understanding” which is not from above, but from sin. It is that very fervent conviction that God cannot be trusted–that we must earn His love, or divert His anger through the proper performance of rites, rituals, and righteous behavior. Sin prevented the disciples from “understanding” a Messiah who would be crucified and rise again. Sin does not accept, and cannot imagine a God of grace, whose favor is totally undeserved, motivated only by an all-encompassing, forgiving and self-giving love.
After the crucifixion and resurrection, the disciples gained some “understanding.” We also live after the crucifixion and resurrection. But unless we are willing to let go of our minuscule notions of God, renounce our sin-saturated earthly wisdom, and open up to the “understanding that is from above”– the immensity of the God of grace–we hold His enlightening Spirit off at a distance.
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus’ disciples got into an argument about which of them was the greatest. The great Lover of word pictures and illustrations looked around for something to raise up their understanding. He told them, “If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all.” Then Jesus took a little child into His arms and said, “Anyone who welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”
We need to understand the place of children in their society. They were not even to be seen–let alone heard. Children had no legal rights, no privileges guaranteed by law, no social standing whatever. Children were defenseless and dependent, almost as vulnerable as children in their mothers’ wombs in America today. Yet Jesus holds one up as equal to Himself–the greatest!
James offered a similar definition of greatness when he answered his own question about who is wise and understanding. It is the one who shows it by a good life (not to be confused with “the good life” of our materialistic society). It is the person of faith and humility, whose understanding comes from God, and whose ways are pure, peaceful, gentle, reasonable and filled with the fruits of mercy and sincerity.
Bringing little children to Jesus is the task of every Christian. Some are like the child Jesus held up to His disciples, but some are full grown adults whose childish notions about God are deluded by sin or misinformed by imprudent notions from their past, whether animistic, materialistic or just unrealistic. Tell them all the Good News about Jesus. Tell them all how–just as Jesus said it would happen–He was betrayed, killed and then rose from the dead. Tell them that He did it all for you…and for them.
“Help us, O Lord, to learn from You. May Your gentleness and compassion for all the ‘little people’ which, next to You, includes all of us, make us gentle and compassionate toward others. Help us to give up the false knowledge and wisdom of this world so that we can learn every day from You. Pour on us Your Spirit of humility and patience and open our eyes and lives to all that You already know we can be. Amen.”