“Jesus longs to gather…”

Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:

Jeremiah 26:8-15
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

A very good friend of mine, one of God’s stalwart servants in World Mission, is recuperating from surgery due to colon cancer. In 1989, at this same time of the year–“March Madness” in college basketball circles–Norm Stewart went through the same thing. The longtime basketball coach at Mizzou was hospitalized and in serious condition when his team played one evening. With everything and everyone in top form, that team had a legitimate shot at becoming the number one rated team in the country.

Since I am something of a sports enthusiast, I listened to the game. Since many of you are not fans, and many do not even live in Missouri, you may be wondering why I’m boring you with these facts. I wanted to set the stage clearly for you. I remember the pre-game as if it happened yesterday. Before the game, an announcer informed the audience of the coach’s condition and then requested that they join in a moment of “special thought for Coach Norm Stewart.”

Special thought! Good grief, what have we come to when we can’t even say the word “prayer” in public? Do you suppose somebody actually thought that those people or any people could THINK him well? My mother was living then and I would have matched five words of prayer from my mother against five minutes of “thoughts” from 70,000 fans plus the TV audience. The skill of one surgeon is worth more than the nice thoughts of all the people in the world, but as one surgeon wisely quotes every time the last suture is clipped: “Without God we are nothing.”

In Sunday’s Epistle lesson, St. Paul warns the Christians in Philippi: “there are many whose way of life makes them enemies of the cross of Christ. They are heading for destruction; appetite is their god, and they glory in their shame. Their minds are set on earthly things.” Paul doesn’t mention it, but some people outside the church are even worse! Many theologians agree that two splinter groups were tugging at the Philippians from opposite ends of a spectrum.

Judaizers, or legalists, were insisting that all the old regulations of Judaism still applied to Gentile and Jewish Christians alike. Antinomians or libertines were ready to throw out any and every law or regulation. It is generally accepted that Paul’s harsh words, quoted above, are directed against this second group. Both were enemies of the Gospel. One group didn’t take the Good News far enough; the other took it too far. Neither took it seriously.

In one respect, the church hasn’t changed much in almost 2,000 years. Legalists and libertines still contend for attention and prominence in various circles. In another sense, a new and perhaps more dangerous group has risen to prominence above the others. We still have one group pulling this way, and another group pulling that way, but now we have an even larger group of people who don’t give a rap either way.

I find it easier to be sympathetic toward those who strive for a wrong cause, than toward those who have no cause at all. Let’s have a moment of special thought for them.

During Lent, some people think it is depressing to be reminded of their sins and of Christ’s suffering for them. Others, in their pride, do not think they need to be reminded. Perhaps they think that they don’t even need to repent. Some think about it this way. Some think that. Then there is the big group again–they don’t think about it at all.

Do you suppose the day will come when my grandchildren will be sitting in rocking chairs telling their grandchildren about the good old days when people actually went to Lutheran churches on Wednesday nights? How many of our grandchildren will even remember?

In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus was warned not to go to Jerusalem because Herod was out to kill Him. Jesus told the messengers to report to Herod that He would be in Jerusalem in three days, and He added: “It is unthinkable for a prophet to meet His death anywhere but in Jerusalem.” Then He used one of the most beautiful images of God’s love to describe His lament over Jerusalem. He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that murders the prophets and stones the messengers sent to her! How often have I longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her brood to her wings; but you would not let me.”

In my younger days, I was a lifeguard at a YMCA in St. Louis. In our training, the instructor warned us over and over to watch out for the dangers involved in approaching a drowning person. Some will kick their legs and flail their arms with such violence that you may be knocked unconscious. Others may grab you with such ferocity that they can strangle you or prevent you from moving your own arms in order to save them or yourself. Saving people is dangerous business to the saver. Jesus knew that as well.

The great sadness is that people push away, injure and even kill the one who is trying to help them. Jesus’ image of the hen gathering her brood is more than what first meets the eye. Years ago I read a story that has stayed with me. A woman looked out her kitchen window one day and noticed a mother hen scurrying to gather her chicks. Then the woman saw a shadow move across the yard and knew in an instant that it must be a chicken hawk. One chick had been too slow at answering mother hen’s call and the hawk pounced on it. That much of the incident did not surprise the woman who had lived most of her life on that farm. What happened next amazed her.

She hadn’t noticed when the hawk first cruised in, but the mother hen had left her other chicks and ran/flew across the yard as fast as a chicken could travel. The saver and predator arrived at the same time and there was a ferocious collision. The hen emerged from the explosion of feathers, with blood spattered all over her white coat and a little chick beneath her wing. The hawk flopped around on the ground for awhile before succumbing to its wound. The hen’s beak and head had penetrated deeply into the unsuspecting hawk when the two collided.

It seems unthinkable, doesn’t it, that little chicks would ever run away from their own mother when she was trying to protect them, help them, take care of them? Why would they ever do that?

The Pharisees pushed Jesus away because they saw His teaching as a threat to their tradition, and His love for sinners as a threat to their status. Herod hated Him because He was a threat to the political establishment. People run headlong from Him today because He might challenge them to give up their belly-gods and worldly ways. He might even want them to do something for Him or, belly-god forbid, give money! Others thrash and kick at Him because He warns that they cannot save themselves.

Some can’t stand His perfect presence because it reminds them so painfully of their own imperfections, wickedness and failures. Others pull away from Him because life has dealt them a bad hand or a deathblow, and they feel like life–like He–has been unfair to them. Then there is that big group again. They don’t run or push away; they just ignore Him. They are too busy, too tired, too forgetful. They just don’t give a rap.

How He longs to gather us under His wings but we run, we thrash, we kick, we refuse, we ignore, we drown in our own sorrows. He who would take our sorrows and exchange them for joys is kept at a distance, knocked unconscious, killed and crucified, and all because of His love for us. His mercy, designed to give us life, costs Him His own. His forgiveness, which some refuse because they imagine they don’t need it and others reject because it might require them to remember their failures, is of no price whatsoever to us, but comes at the cost of His lifeblood. Such a God, such love and grace cannot be ignored, but when He calls us to gather under His wings, will we now come? Will we bring others?

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