Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
Strange things happen all the time. One of the more bizarre things that happened while I was a pastor in a small town involved three members of the congregation. A thunderstorm blew down a tree from the front yard of one member. The tree landed on the car of another member. When the local newspaper reported the incident, it said that the car belonged to someone else altogether–the daughter of the third member! That same week, a faulty light fixture on display in a hardware store caught the building on fire and burned it to the ground. That building had been constructed while Abraham Lincoln was President of the United States.
Only one of those strange events–the falling tree–was a natural phenomenon. Insurance companies call such things an “Act of God.” The rest were caused by plain old human error. Unless something was done as deliberate sabotage, the word “sin” seems a little strong, but it was probably the culprit nonetheless.
That same week, I heard a world-famous sports announcer, participating in a ceremony honoring a former Cardinal pitcher, refer to him with the name of a different pitcher. Both athletes had the same first name, so the mistake was understandable, but oh, so embarrassing and humiliating. Here I thought these things only happened to me. Still in that same week, my son came home, parked his car in the driveway and found a Copperhead right in his path to the house. Joel escaped unscathed. The snake did not. But the event might have turned out the other way if we hadn’t left the lights on. Now, think about this–if it had gone the other way, would it have been a purely natural accident, or would it have been a mistake or sin?
The ultimate question, I suppose, is “Does it matter?” In either case, we would always want the mistake not to be made or the accident/natural calamity not to happen–at least–not to us! A fellow was very sad one day. An observer commented: “Either some great evil has happened to him, or some great good to another.” A famous criminal lawyer put a different slant on that: “Everybody is a potential murderer … I have not personally killed anybody, but I do frequently get great satisfaction out of the obituary notices.”
Now, where is God in all of this? Do we, however subtly, want or even expect God to keep mistakes from happening to us and, perhaps, let them happen to our enemies? Is He supposed to show us the snakes in the grass, keep the trees from falling or let them fall away from our automobiles, let the competition’s store burn, bring the big fish to our boat and let our team always win?
The Bible contains some stories that show God miraculously touching people’s lives. During a drought in Israel, Elijah went to the home of a widow in Zarephath, on the coast of what is now Lebanon. He asked the woman to give him a drink of water and a piece of bread. She answered, “I don’t have any bread–only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it–and die.”
The prophet assured her that if she first prepared his meal and then prepared for herself and her son, “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.” Everything happened exactly as he predicted and things went very well for the three of them until one day the boy became very ill and died.
This Sunday’s Old Testament lesson picks up the story at that point. The woman asked, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” Elijah, in turn, asked God, “Have you brought tragedy also upon this widow I am staying with, by causing her son to die?” The prophet asked God to let the boy’s life return, and then he did a sort of B.C.C.P.R. on him. The boy revived. The mother’s reaction was “Now I know that you are a man of God and that the word of the Lord from your mouth is the truth.”
Didn’t she already know that? Weren’t the ever-flowing flour jar and oil jug proof enough? She had already called him a “man of God” when she complained about her son’s death. Perhaps it is nothing more than an outcry of joy and gratitude, but I think her words reflect our attitudes as well. We may know that God is our Provider of the ordinary stuff of life. Once a year, in November, we may even say so, but in large part we take it for granted. When tragedy strikes, our guilt and anger at God take over. We want to yell at Him: “Did you come to remind me of my sin?” Sometimes our faith is there, but it is weak. But when God touches life itself with richness and fullness, we know it in our guts, as the Bible says. Then we actually believe in Him and trust Him.
This first story in the Bible about a resurrection or resuscitation from the dead is very interesting in that it happens to a non-Israelite family. The woman’s confession of faith was one Elijah’s own people had failed to make. Sunday’s Gospel lesson contains a similar story. Jesus also raised the son of a widow. Apparently, this time the family was Jewish, because the crowd’s reaction was, “God has visited His people.” Jesus had touched the bier or open coffin on which the dead son was being carried. Then He simply ordered the young man to get up.
Sunday’s Epistle lesson is part of Paul’s defense of his position as an Apostle and his message of the Gospel. He fervently argues the difference between religion–any religion–and Christianity. Christianity is a faith in God based on the Good News of God’s free gift of salvation, forgiveness, abundant life now and eternal life forever. Leander Keck, in The New Testament Experience of Faith, warned that the most persistent threat to the Christian faith is “the desire of the Christian to do something to improve the salvation he or she already has.” That is what the Galatians were doing.
The Galatians established some strict requirements for themselves and then proudly followed them. It isn’t clear whether they were looking for approval from God, their fellow humans or both. They certainly got a reaction from Paul, but I doubt that it was one they anticipated. Paul angrily accused them of following a “different gospel,” one that was man-made, rather than God-breathed. Their “gospel” made Christ’s death meaningless. Christ’s death delivered them from death, but here they were insisting on delivering themselves.
We have only minimal control over our own mistakes and next-to-none over the forces of nature, but we do have control over the time and effort we invest in our spiritual lives. We have no guarantee against mistakes and mishaps, but we do have a mission. We have the promises of God and, like the widow of Zarephath, we know that the Word of the Lord is true. Jesus still touches the coffins of our loved ones with resurrection. Jesus still touches us with life–life in abundance.
The message is not a birthright, inherited by virtue of genealogy or ethnic privilege. It is not a reward for following rules and regulations, man-made or otherwise. It is a gift of God’s undeserved favor and love. With it comes the charge to tell the Good News about Jesus to the whole world.