Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
A few years ago, “fire-eaters” worked intersections in Mexico City in numbers similar to “windshield washers” in many cities today. When the traffic light turned red, a man would walk out in front of the cars holding a flaming rag that was wrapped around a bent coat hanger. He would fill his mouth with diesel fuel from a jar in his hand and then blow on the flaming rag. For a moment, he would look like a human blowtorch. After the flames died down, he would go from one car to the next asking for money.
The “fire-eaters” were poor and unable to find jobs, so they used this method of entertaining to raise a little money. It worked. People were fascinated by the illusion of the fire that burns but does not consume.
Authorities have curbed the practice because of the dangers involved on the crowded city streets. In addition, the fire may not affect the “fire-eaters,” but the fuel itself eats away at their brain cells and causes ulcers in their mouths, while ruining their teeth.
The reference to the fire that does not consume is reminiscent of this Sunday’s lesson from Exodus– Moses’ call to be a prophet. Like the travelers on Mexico City’s streets, he was fascinated by a fire that didn’t consume. A bush was burning, but it was not burning up. Some people have tried to explain away this event–suggesting that leaves of a brilliant hue may have been blowing in the wind or that shiny leaves were reflecting the sun into Moses’ eyes. Some have even suggested that it was an occurrence of the electrical phenomenon known as “St. Elmo’s fire.” I figure it is an apt illustration of the presence of God, as discovered later by three friends in a fiery furnace. God is present–God speaks–in the fire that does not consume.
One of the greatest tragedies of many people’s lives is that they are spent trying to avoid fires associated with God. Seemingly everyone would like to avoid Hellfire. But many also want to avoid the wonderful non-consuming fires that really are of God–fires of blessing, love, compassion, calling and commitment. These are the fires of the Holy Spirit, which appeared on the disciples at Pentecost, and they are the fires that warm the hearts and drive the lives of the best of God’s people to this very day. I am convinced that the prayer of W.H.H. Aitken ought to be the morning prayer with which every one of us greets every day: “Lord, take my lips and speak through them; take my mind and think through it; take my heart and set it on fire.”
Lent is one of those few times in the year when Lutheran Christians have an opportunity to respond to God in the middle of the week as well as the first day. It is both a blessing and a danger–a blessing because we have the extra opportunity to respond in worship to God, to be “fired up” by the Spirit in His Word–a danger because it can be depressing to see a lack of such response and only a minimal spark here and there. One pastor says that the greatest danger in Lent is thinking that by participating in an expanded schedule of services, we are scoring points with God.
In Sunday’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus attempting to answer the age-old question about suffering. It is usually phrased, “Why me?” In Sunday’s lesson, it appears to be more like, “Why them?” It was reported that Pilate had mingled the blood of some Galileans with that of the Roman sacrifices. Jesus asked, “Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans?” He also made a reference to 18 people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them, and asked the same basic question about them. In each case, He answered that these people were no greater sinners than anybody else, and then added: “But unless you repent you will all perish as they did.”
The whole thing seems strange. It is as if He were saying, “They didn’t perish because of their sins, but you might because of yours.” In a sense, that is exactly what He is saying. Natural calamities and the suffering that comes from the ugliness and inhumanity of others ought never to be blamed on God, as though it were some punishment He was giving. At the same time, sin takes us down a path of self- destruction. If we don’t get off the path, we will eventually arrive at our destination.
Almost out of the blue, Jesus then told one of His famous parables. It was the story about the man who had a fig tree that didn’t bear figs. He told his vineyard-keeper to cut it down because it was just taking up the ground. The vineyard-keeper asked for the opportunity to carefully water and fertilize the tree for one more year to see if that wouldn’t do the trick. The tree could always be cut down later if it still didn’t bear fruit.
Most people think that God is like the owner of the tree–impatient and ready at any time to cut us down, but He is not. God is like the vineyard-keeper–always seeing some glowing potential in even the worst of us. God has every right and every reason to be as frustrated with us as that man was with his fruitless fig tree, but His eternal patience far outweighs His frustration. No, it is more than patience.
Regular readers of the “Edit-O-Earl” know that I do not believe it is possible to overstate God’s grace and mercy for us. At the same time, His view of our potential may be even more remarkable. Only God can look at murderer Saul and see Apostle Paul, at reckless Simon and see rock-solid Peter, at a baby floating in a river and see Moses, at me and see someone He wants to be a writer and preacher of His
Word. With a little digging, watering and fertilizing, He does wonders. What does God see in you?
A woman built a small hothouse in her apartment. She had some of the largest and most beautiful plants and flowers in it that you could imagine. When she started the project, she did not believe in talking to her plants. She thought the whole idea was bunk–something invented by a sadistic person who enjoyed watching other people make fools of themselves. She had several truly remarkable geranium plants. Two were over five feet tall. The largest of these was responsible for changing her mind about conversing with botanic life. From the very beginning it was the biggest and healthiest looking of all her plants, but, as she put it, “The obnoxious beast wouldn’t grow any flowers!”
She asked everyone who knew anything about such plants, and tried everything they suggested. She also cursed that plant practically every day. She must have threatened 100 times to toss it through her third story window. Finally, someone suggested that, instead of cursing and threatening, she should be encouraging the plant to grow flowers of great size and beauty.
At first, she said, her efforts were half-hearted, if not hypocritical. After a while, she found herself actually showing compassion. Instead of being angry that the plant ignored all her hard work, she felt sorry that it was not fulfilling its own glorious potential. Suddenly, one day, buds appeared everywhere. She pinched them back fearfully, but affectionately. Eventually the plant became her most prized producer.
It is not in Jesus’ parables that we really come to see God as the One who patiently nurtures and cares for us and wants what is best for us. The stories only illustrated–Jesus demonstrated. When He was hanging on the cross, do you suppose anyone asked, “Why Him?” Did they discuss whether or not His sins were greater than those of any other Galilean? Did they ask, as they did in another instance, whether He suffered because of His own sins or those of His parents?
He suffered because of your sins. He died because of my sins. He rose because God always has potentials where everyone else only has dead ends. It is God’s love, grace, mercy and compassion that put back into dead sinners the glow of love once lost. It is His unbelievable expectation of us that holds the possibilities for us. God made the world’s best-known missionary out of the murderer Saul. What will He make of me…of you?
I asked it already, but it’s worth repeating: What does God see in you? If your answer is in any way negative, or if it is limited and unimaginative, then I would have to ask it again. I would have to say something like, “No, no, no, I don’t want to know what you see in you, but what does God see in you?”