Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Feddersen:
Some years ago, the PGA Championship took place in St. Louis. From the way the media and the people in the city reacted, you’d have thought it was the Olympics! The chosen country club was not in the most accessible spot in Missouri, but it bordered one of the most populated. One reporter said that if you were a big wig or had big bucks, you could get in, but you still couldn’t get there! All the money and prestige in the world couldn’t get you through the traffic.
The streets were a nightmare. Several access roads were under repair. Others took traffic one way in the morning and changed direction in the evening. Half of the local people never figured it out and the poor tourists were lost.
In the midst of the best-laid plans, the fickle finger of fate flies on. Or, as one fatalist put it, “Anything that is possible, the human mind can find a way to fail to accomplish.” Then there is Emo Phillips who said, “I’m not a fatalist. And even if I were, what could I do about it?”
Writing to the Colossians, St. Paul said, “See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.” Among the most popular philosophies of Paul’s day–some would call them human religions–were belief in the fates and belief in astrology. The most common heresies of the time– confusions of philosophy and theology–continue to rage on to this day. One is that God manipulates our lives and surroundings. A second is related, but it believes we can manipulate God.
Against any of these notions, Paul emphasized that in Christ, all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form and He is head over any power and authority. With a fascinating twist of the apparent, Paul points to the cross–the seeming sign of human authority’s conquest of Christ–as actually being the means whereby He disarmed earthly powers and authorities. Although Paul mentions the resurrection, it is the cross, not the empty tomb, which he sees as the sign of Christ’s victory.
The other two lessons for Sunday share a theme of being persistent when we request something from God. The Old Testament lesson includes a conversation between Abraham and God about the fate of Sodom. The Gospel is a conversation between the disciples and Jesus about prayer. Abraham is persistent. Jesus says we should be persistent in prayer. Does this mean that we can, through prayer, manipulate God into manipulating our surroundings according to our design?
Stories from Abram’s time often speak of God in very anthropomorphic terms–giving God human characteristics. They reveal part of our continuing struggle to know an unknowable God. They present, as does the rest of Scripture, the Holy, and wholly Unimaginable God, revealing and giving Himself to us.
In this story, the unspoken issues are the real issues. God was going to Sodom, reportedly to find out if the stories He had heard were true. The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah was great and their evil was notorious. Are we really to assume that God didn’t already know what was going on? Abraham started arguing for Sodom! Why did he give a rip about the Sodomites? He didn’t! His nephew lived there. Lot and his family were Abraham’s only real concern, but he never mentioned it. God never intended for Lot and his family to be destroyed, nor anyone else who would listen to Him. That, it appears, was God’s real reason for going there, but, like Abraham, God didn’t mention it.
Abraham’s bidding prayer is similar to reverse auction bidding. He argued for the number of righteous or faithful in Sodom. He started with 50, moved slowly through 45 and 40, and then jumped by tens to finally arrive at 10 people for the sake of whom God will not destroy the city. God went along every step of the way. The near-tragedy of the situation was that there were only four in Lot’s family–six if you counted the young men who were engaged to Lot’s daughters. There was no tragedy, because the Lord went there to save the savable–all who would listen.
We might wonder why Abraham didn’t simply ask God, “What about Lot and his family?” We might also wonder why God didn’t say, “Well, if you’re concerned about Lot….” Maybe they both just enjoyed the conversation. I think Abraham would have approached God in more straightforward faith later in his life. At this time, Abe probably thought manipulation might be possible or was, in fact, necessary. Later, he’d have known that neither was true.
Jesus compared prayer to a man banging on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night in order to borrow some provisions for unexpected company. He concluded, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.” As is often the case, there is something unspoken here. What if the neighbor were not a friend? All the “boldness” or persistence in the world will neither manipulate nor motivate an unfriendly neighbor or an enemy. The reason for persistence in prayer is the faithful confidence that God is more than a friend. He is a loving heavenly Father who wants what is best for us.
As a matter of fact, Jesus concluded with a fatherly illustration: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” Once again, I think an unspoken side of this illustration may be the most important in our lesson about faith and prayer. Jesus didn’t say this, but it is worth asking: Which of you, if your child asks for a poisonous snake or scorpion, would give it to him?
My sons could pretty well wheedle anything in the world out of me when they were little and not much has changed in that regard. But they never received a motorcycle from me, nor could they have received one. I answered a few too many “10-50–two-wheeler” calls (calls to accidents involving motorcycles) as a paramedic. It is not my point here to argue with any parent who might disagree. The point is simply that they wouldn’t and still won’t get one from ME. I am the one who gets to decide what gifts I think are best for me to give.
It seems like we should be smart enough to realize that God has the same power over His gifts. The fact that He allows people to kill themselves does not mean He would provide the weapon! His judgment is His own. I don’t have to argue my point about motorcycles and God shouldn’t have to explain that He knows better than we know.
The same faith that would be persistent in asking God to give what is good for us will also trust that He will not give what isn’t good, no matter how hard or often we ask for it. Our biggest trouble is that sin, and not faith, often adds the unspoken footnote to our prayers. When a child says to a parent, “If you loved me, you would…,” the child, not the parent, is the one who introduces the possibility that the parent doesn’t love. When we attempt to manipulate God, it is we who are suggesting that God needs manipulation. Only tiny, foolish human minds could conceive of the possibility that we could do it.
Maybe, if things are coming together as I hope, we can see now why the cross is the symbol of Jesus’ victory over sin. The empty tomb is the sign of victory over death and the grave, the reminder that God will have His way no matter what evil may do. But the cross provides the unmistakable victory over sin’s notion that God must be manipulated into loving us or doing what is best for us. The cross proves that He cannot even be intimidated or manipulated out of loving us!
Years ago, a popular song reminded us not to tug on Superman’s cape, spit in the wind, pull the mask off the Lone Ranger, or mess with Jim. The song implied that such behavior indicates we are asking for it and will receive it big time! Surely this sin-infested world can see that you don’t crucify the Son of the God of the Universe. Compared to Him, Superman, the wind, the Ranger and Jim are all very small fry. When the world asked for it, Jesus chose the “it” and “it” was His life, love, grace and forgiveness. Jesus says ask and it will be given! Amen!
Every person in every part of the world needs to know and believe the Good News about Jesus. Way too many cannot believe it because no one has told them. While not every one of us can go to serve in the mission in some faraway place and culture, every one of us can pray that all people can hear and hear soon.
If you want our missionaries to be safe and successful in their callings, ask for it! If you want your neighbor to know the Good News about Jesus, tell your neighbor. If you want that neighbor to believe the Good News after you’ve told it, ask for it. Now you’re asking for it.