Our scripture for this devotional is from a series of statements that Jesus made to His disciples soon after Palm Sunday, as they all entered Jerusalem. Jesus was talking to them about how, before the Second Coming arrived, some Christians would be persecuted or challenged for their faith. Jesus tonight calls such times of persecution and challenge “an opportunity to witness.” Our flesh recoils at imagining ourselves being forced to endure such persecution, such suffering. Our flesh doesn’t see those moments as “opportunities” at all.
Our flesh often feels being put on the spot or persecuted is an experience much like Lincoln viewed bring president during the tumultuous Civil War. Do you know what the phrase “tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail,” means? I looked it up. In the 1800s there was a tradition that when townspeople didn’t particularly like someone – say, a petty swindler – they would pour tar all over his body. The tar was ugly, smelly, and sticky, and then they would pour feathers all over that man’s body, which stuck onto him, so that he looked quite ridiculous. But the crowd wasn’t done with him. Then they would sit that man up – like he’s sitting on a chair – placing him on an uncomfortable wooden fence rail. Then, to the great applause of the community, several men would parade that man on that rail out of town and then dump him there. That’s what the phrase “tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail,” meant.
A group of friends from Illinois were visiting Lincoln in the White House. One of them asked Lincoln how he enjoyed being President of the United States. Lincoln replied with a story of a man being tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Lincoln said, “When that man was asked how he liked it, he replied, ‘Well, if it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d just as soon walk!’ I feel that way sometimes,” Abe concluded, “about the ‘honor’ of being president!” Part of him did not “appreciate” going through the difficulties of this political “opportunity.”
A part of us would sooner ‘walk,’ too, than have to defend ourselves. But Christ proclaims today that when you are put on the spot about your faith it “will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds,” Christ counsels, “NOT to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
Now, that’s a great promise. I think all of us have gone through times when, after a conversation, we think to ourselves, “Hmmm. I wish I had thought at the time to say this rather than that!” So is Christ talking about giving us the power to be quick-witted? No, I don’t think so, because that would be relying upon our own brains rather than on God’s Spirit. Have you ever suddenly thought and said something that seemed inspired – that seemed to come to you out of nowhere? I believe that THAT experience is like the “words and a wisdom” given to us that Jesus is talking about here. As I have said before, we need to expand our definition of prayer so that it includes such sudden inspirations coming to us – part of what Paul counseled in Thessalonians that we “pray without ceasing.”
One of my favorite examples of constant prayer is from the Old Testament. In those years when the Jewish people were making the transition from being exiled in Babylon to going back to Judah, some Jews still stayed behind in that region for a while, such as Nehemiah, a young man who was cupbearer to the king. Nehemiah had just heard bad news; the first group of Jews back in Judah were floundering. The wall in Jerusalem was still broken down and the gates had not been built back up. Nehemiah prayed to God for help. One day he appeared before the king and the king noted that for the first time Nehemiah was sad in his presence. So the king said to Nehemiah, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of heart.” Nehemiah then told the king how bad things were back in his homeland, and the king replied, “What do you request from me?”
The next thing that happened, writes Nehemiah, was this: “So I prayed to the God of heaven.” You see in that moment God, in a split second, inspired Nehemiah to request the following: “Then I said to the king, if it pleases you, I ask that you send me to Judah, that I may rebuild it.” And the king granted Nehemiah’s request – providing Nehemiah with letters for him to show people in Judah that Nehemiah had the king’s blessing. In that little moment, you see, Nehemiah was given the opportunity to speak for the Lord, so that the Lord could ALSO inspire the king to respond a certain way. Nehemiah wrote, “The king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.”
“The gracious hand of my God was upon me,” Nehemiah said. And the gracious hand of God is upon US by what Jesus declares today. One of our greatest anxieties in life is saying the right thing at the right time, and, as we study God’s word regularly and worship regularly and pray regularly and discuss our faith regularly, we begin to understand more and more what God is likely to say to us and how we can apply God’s way of doing things to our way of life. It is not just the words that Jesus gives us; it’s the wisdom behind it. We begin to look forward to every day as an opportunity for God both to “school” us as disciples and “mature” us as we serve others – whether we do well or not – AND SO we begin to look forward to every day as an opportunity to bear witness to the love of God, the grace of Christ the Savior and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Every day is a great opportunity to do that, to grow, even if sometimes we get hurt.
Jesus uses the word “opportunity” here. Now the word “opportunity” grew out of the word “port,” which is in the middle of the word “opportunity” – “port.” That word “opportunity” is from the Latin opportunus which means “fit, convenient, suitable, and favorable.” It comes from a Latin phrase ob portum veniens which means “coming toward a port” or harbor – coming toward a “safe place.” When a boat is in a storm the people on the boat are very relieved when they find a port or harbor to shelter safely in during a storm.
It’s a strange kind of “harbor during the storm” that Jesus provides us in His promise today. As He said in the Sermon on the Mount,” “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account. Rejoice and be glad, for Your reward is great in heaven, for the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” So the “safe harbor” of God speaking through us – of giving us “words and a wisdom” – is not an earthly kind of safe harbor but a heavenly one. As I said last Sunday, we are to live a heavenly life now, as angels on earth, because by allowing God to take over our lives we are blessed beyond measure. We rejoice that finally we enjoy the fulfillment that was promised to us when we were made in God’s image and likeness. Opportunities to reveal God’s love by word and deed abound for us every day now. Our concerns change from “How can God keep my flesh safe?” to this: “Will God give me opportunities to be God’s disciple today? Oh, please, God, let there be a challenge! Oh, please, Lord, let there be an opportunity to give Christ to others!” Amen.
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