Bruised Reeds and Smoldering Wicks
In her book entitled "It’s not in the Ministry Manual," Mary Ann Cejka relates a time when the students in her Spanish class welcomed a refugee for Thanksgiving dinner one year. The following is an excerpt from this story:
Fernando did not look like what I thought a refugee should look like. He was fat, for one thing. The beige polyester suit he wore was tight on him, especially around the belly. He reeked of cologne. He had one gold front tooth and around his neck was a matching gold chain.
When we stepped into my house, fragrant with the aroma of pumpkin pie and roasting turkey, he grinned broadly. My students, obediently gathered for the occasion, looked up from their happy chatter and returned his grin with nervous smiles. Their Spanish was better than mine, so I felt no remorse in leaving Fernando to converse with them while I retreated to the kitchen to mash potatoes.
When I’d read the ad explaining that some refugees from the war then raging in El Salvador had no place to go for Thanksgiving dinner, I had pictured a humble peasant in ragged clothes. So, no doubt, had my students. As their campus minister, I had urged them not to pass up an opportunity to reach out to the poor and oppressed. Our refugee would tell us heartrending stories and we would respond with compassion and cranberry sauce.
During dinner, Fernando pulled out a tattered black-and-white photo of a gaunt woman with dark, sad eyes, holding an infant. "This is my sister. She is died," he announced solemnly. "I am so sorry," I jumped in. "Did she die in the war?" "No," said Fernando matter-of-factly. "Drugs." Everyone stopped eating. "And the baby?" someone whispered. Fernando shrugged. "I think . . . maybe he is with the husband of my sister. Her husband have drugs too though."
Back in the kitchen, I hacked away at the turkey carcass, felling guilty and naïve. Would my students learn from this experience that welcoming a stranger is a foolish risk, a pointless exercise in liberal do-gooding?
James, one of the now gloomy faces at the dining room table, had brought me a sketch of St. Vincent de Paul. Held now with a magnet to my refrigerator door, it was accompanied by a quote: "You must love the poor very much, else they will never forgive you the good you do for them." Thinking of our repugnant and so far unlovable guest, I frowned back at the saint.
"You’d better show us how," I grumbled. Returning with a replenished turkey platter, I came upon a group of my students heading out the front door. "You’re not having dessert?" I called after them. "That slime ball hit us up for money," one of them yelled back over his shoulder. "Does he think we’re rich or something?" A small remnant of students sat glumly at the table. "Where’s Fernando?" I asked. "Out there," said James, pointing to the back porch with his fork.
We looked out the window to see Fernando smoking a cigarette, staring at the sun setting over a cold brown landscape. Ever candid, James sighed. "This wasn’t in the Refugee Entertainment Manual, was it?" We laughed halfheartedly, watching as an emaciated stray cat jumped onto the porch, and rubbed himself against Fernando’s pants. That cat had for weeks spurned my offerings of milk and the oily spoils of tuna cans. But he leapt readily into Fernando’s outstretched arms. Fernando clutched the cat to his chest and began to cry. A surprised silence filled the room.
Someone asked, "Do you think we should give him some money?" "Up to you," I said. They looked at each other uncomfortably and began to dig around in their pockets. I went to the door and invited Fernando inside. Still holding the cat, Fernando stepped into the room. "I think this cat he is hungry," he announced. Fernando fingered a tidbit of turkey from the platter and offered it to the cat, who ate it quickly, then licked Fernando’s hands.
"That cat likes you, Fernando," I observed. Still red-eyed, Fernando stroked the purring bundle of fur on his lap. "Yeah. He live here?" "He’s a stray," I said. "He lives nowhere." "Like me," said Fernando. "I take him, then. I think I call him ‘Farabundo." This is a hero of my country, ‘Farabundo.’"
Fernando reached for a napkin to wipe his eyes, then noticed a crumpled wad of bills under his coffee cup. He began to cry again. "You are nice jóvenes," he said. "You have me for dinner. I do wrong things, and people leave. I am sorry. Please. I do not take your money." Shy, diminutive Rudy, whose parents had come from Mexico, stood up and walked over to Fernando. Reaching over with his scrawny, tattooed arm, he patted Fernando’s back.
"Hey, it’s OK man," he said. "We don’t always get things right either. You can keep the money, man. You’re gonna need it for cat food." Fernando smiled, still wiping his eyes. "OK," he laughed. "For Farabundo. Sí."
Jesus told the Pharisees when they criticized him and his disciples with these words: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” When we look at the life of Jesus we see a man of compassion, filled with mercy for others. But compassion can be hard work. And compassion does not come naturally to hearts that are filled with sin and with self.
We live in a fallen world full of ‘me-first’ people. The natural man wants what he wants when he wants it. We see our world becoming increasingly self-centered and nasty. It is dog eat dog, survival of the fittest. And God forbid anyone should get in my way.
We love to knock people down. Just look at the recent rejoicing over Brittney Spears failed marriage. We love to watch people gain measure of success, and then watch them fall down. We enjoy the misfortune that comes upon the rich and famous. We eat up the tabloids. We like it when that person who mistreated us in the office gets knocked down a peg or two. Mercy and compassion are hard for us.
But Jesus sees people differently. Jesus sees that people, every man and woman on this earth, is fragile. He weeps over them as sheep without a shepherd. He is kind a tender to the woman caught in adultery, or the man tormented by demons. And even with the Pharisees, his stern words are with love and out of a desire that they would open their eyes and see the salvation that has come.
So far in our study of Matthew we have read and learned the following from Jesus:
Matthew 5:7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
Matthew 5:44 “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”
Matthew 11:28 “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Matthew 9:36 “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
We have seen Jesus put His compassion in action. He has healed a leper who asked if Jesus was willing to heal. He has told a centurion soldier that He was willing to come to his Gentile house and heal his servant. He has granted the request of demons to not be tortured, and has freed a demon possessed man. He has raised a paralytic and told him to take heart that his sins were forgiven. He has accepted a tax –collector into the circle of his closest friends and has attended a party in his honor of the town most corrupt people. He has comforted a father by raising his dead daughter back to life. And He has healed a terrified woman who suffered for 12 years and could only muster enough courage to touch the hem of his robe. Over and over Jesus demonstrated that He is a man of compassion, and this same Jesus lives in the hearts of every true believer.
This morning I want to continue our study of Matthew, and I want us to receive encouragement for ourselves and a challenge for how we conduct ourselves in this world. One of the most comforting verses in all of scripture is found in today’s reading. Turn with me to Matthew 12:15-21
‘Jesus, aware of this, withdrew from there. And many followed him, and He healed them all and ordered them not to make Him known. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah:
‘Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon Him, and He will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets: a bruised reed He will not break, and a smoldering wick He will not quench, until He brings justice to victory; and in His name the Gentiles will hope.”
Jesus shows compassion for bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.
1. We all fall short. So don’t give up on yourself.
Some have looked at the picture of bruised reeds and smoldering wicks and have found that everyone is included in one of these two pictures. The bruised reeds can depict those who have been beaten up and severely wounded by the effects of sin. They are broken by life, damaged I heart and mind, weak, helpless, hopeless and dead in their transgressions. All of us have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God. The effect of our sin is to kill us, and to separate us forever from the life and love of God. We are dead in our transgressions and hopeless to help ourselves. A bruised reed cannot be repaired. It is useless. You can’t make music with it. You can’t build anything with it. You can’t bind it and hope that it will grow solid again. It is here today and gone tomorrow.
This is a picture of each and every one of us apart from Christ. We were lost, broken, and without hope. We could not repair ourselves. We could not save our own souls. We were dead.
The second picture is of a smoldering wick. A smoldering wick is not completely dead, but is dying. Some have seen in this illustration, those who once believed – the righteous who once put their trust in God, but have now lost their first love and have drifted away from the Lord. A smoldering wick no longer produces light. The darkness has overtaken it. The heat it once produces is almost gone. What is left is only a memory of the glory it once had. A little smoke and a slight flicker of light are all that remain. The smoldering wick is someone who once knew God, but walked away from God. They became harassed by sin and enticed by its pleasures. They failed to live a life of holiness and devotion, and now the full flame has almost gone out. Now they are full of doubt and despair and discouragement. They are like David who hid his sin with Bathsheba and who described his carnal life as one of torture and torment. They are like the church in Laodicea which left its first love and had become lukewarm – not hot or cold.
Smoldering wicks can burn again, but they need help. They need a re-igniting. They need the wind of the Spirit to blow once again upon their lives to fan into the flame the light that once burned brightly.
All of us in this room fall into one of these two categories. And every person we meet in the street also could be described as a bruised reed or a smoldering wick. Life beats you down, and sin snuffs out the life of God. Everyone begins as a sinner lost in their sins and dead to God. And those who have put their trust in Christ are constantly battling the tendency to have their flame flicker and diminish.
These verses are about you and about me.
Paul wrote in Romans 7:24-25 “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” and in 2 Corinthians 4:7-10 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not drive to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.”
The psalmist writes in Psalm 42:5 “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.” And in Psalm 51:17 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
God loves bruised reeds and smoldering wicks. God longs to deliver broken people from their brokenness. God does not seek to destroy or to knock you down. He comes to deliver you and to bring you His peace.
We all fall short of God’s glory. That is why Jesus came.
A man named Jacob had hit a low point in his life. He had thought about killing himself but he was too poor and too tired to secure the means to do it. He found a park bench and just lay down to die. He did not eat, because there was nothing to eat. All he thought about was his death.
A couple of days later he saw in the distance a teenage girl entering the park with a friend. Jacob wondered what on earth someone so innocent and angelic-looking was doing in a park filled with derelicts. He closed his eyes. In a few minutes he heard a soft voice speaking to him. Jacob opened his eyes and saw this same teenaged girl looking at him with compassion. He was caught off guard. It was the first time he had heard anyone speak words of kindness to him in years. At that moment he did not know whether he wanted to cry in gratitude or laugh in cynicism. But her concern moved him in spite of himself. "What do you want?" he growled at her.
"Sir," the young girl said, "I was afraid to come over here, but I feel like God is nudging me to tell you something, before I get back on my bus. I wish I knew how to say it better but, well, sir, Jesus loves you. He loves you. He really does."
Jacob looked at her in disbelief. After all the heartaches he had been through, all the indignity he had suffered, all the rage that had filled his soul for so many years this young girl told him Jesus loved him. As he looked up at her face he saw tears streaming down her cheeks, and to his astonishment he began to weep as well. "No one could love me, child. It’s too late for me," he said between sobs.
"No," she replied urgently as she took his thin, gnarled hand into hers. "It’s not too late. God will gladly take you if only you’d let him. Just tell him that you want to. He will love you and help you." Jacob says it was at that moment that he knew somebody was reaching out to him through her. He knew deep within that he received a touch from God in his hour of greatest need when he didn’t expect it.
We all fall short Don’t give up on yourself!
Jesus shows compassion for bruised reeds and smoldering wicks!
2. See people as Jesus sees them! So don’t give up on others!
Isaiah prophesied, and Jesus fulfilled the prophecy. A bruised reed He did not break, and a smoldering wick He did not snuff out. The natural thing to do with a bruised reed is to break it off and throw it away. It is useless and good for nothing. And a smoldering wick stinks and produces smoke, so why not just snuff it out. Instead Jesus restores the reed to health and life and rekindles the flame in the smoldering wick.
But what about us? How do we respond when we see bruised reeds and smoldering wicks? If we say that we love Jesus and that He dwells in our hearts, shouldn’t this same compassionate Jesus be seen in our lives?
Do we break people who are bruised?
- with our words, harsh and cruel
- with our attitudes, full of judgment and criticism
- with our prejudices, full of condemnation
We can so easily write people off. They are getting what they deserve. They should have tried harder or overcome that addiction. We fill our hearts and minds with a hundred reasons why we just don’t have the time to help someone who is bruised by life. In the words of Jesus, “Our love grows cold”.
There are a hundred reasons why this happens. Perhaps we become overwhelmed with our own lives and problems. Perhaps we just don’t know where to start. Maybe we once cared, but the needs just become too much for us to bear and so we shut our hearts down.
There was a Pastor who took a new position in an inner city church. When the head deacon found the newly-appointed pastor standing at his study window in the church weeping as he looked over the inner city’s tragic conditions, the deacon sought to console him: "Don’t worry. After you’ve been here a while, you’ll get used to it."
Responded the minister, "Yes, I know. That’s why I am crying."
We can become use to the killings and beatings and hardships of this life. We can become numb to the children who are passed from foster home to foster home, or the unborn who are given up to abortion, or the marriages that disintegrate in a culture obsessed with self. We can lose compassion for the neighbor who is facing decaying health, or the elderly person who is shut away in a nursing home.
That is why we need to stay close to Jesus and have His eyes become our eyes. But realize that this does not come without a price. Francis Shaeffer who was dying of cancer once wrote:
.” “The only way to be foolishly happy in this world is to be young enough, well enough, and have money enough—and not give a care about other people. But as soon as you don’t have any of the first three, or if you have compassion for the weeping world around you, then it is impossible to have the foolish kind of happiness that I believe some Christians present as Christianity”
Jesus didn’t call us to live happy, self-obsessed, and cloistered lives of indifference. The man of sorrows calls us to weep for those who are lost and broken and bruised. And when we fall to do that, we have forgotten Jesus.
Have we broken any bruised reeds?
Have we snuffed out any smoldering wicks? Jesus does not snuff out those whose fires are burning low. He gently restores the straying sheep. He calls for repentance and renewal in the life that has lost and left its first love.
How do we snuff out smoldering wicks?
- We create doubt in peoples hearts and minds
- We discourage them and kill their dreams
- We throw cold water on the fire by tempting them to sin, or leading them down a path that is away from Christ.
Are you helping people towards Christ or pulling them away from Christ?
There is a true story of a boy who suffered under the Nazis during WWII. This Jewish boy was living in a small Polish village when he and all the other Jews in the vicinity where rounded up by Nazi SS troops and sentenced to death. This boy joined his neighbors in digging a shallow ditch for their graves. Then they were lined up against a wall and machine-gunned. Their corpses fell into the shallow grave and the Nazis covered their crumpled bodies with dirt. But none of the bullets hit this little boy. His naked body was splattered with the blood of his parents. And when they fell into the ditch he pretended to be dead and fell on top of them. The thin covering of dirt was so thin that it didn’t prevent the air from getting to him so that he could breath. Several hours later when darkness fell this 10-year-old boy clawed his way out of the shallow grave. With blood and dirt caked to his little body he made his way to the nearest house. And he begged for help.
Recognizing him as one of the Jewish boys marked for death by the SS the woman who answered the door screamed at him to go away, and slammed the door. He was turned away at the next house as well as the one after that. In each case the unwillingness to get into trouble with the SS overpowered any feeling of compassion. Dirty, blooded and shivering the little boy went from one house to the next begging for someone to help him. Then something inside him guided him to say something very strange for a Jewish boy to say. When the next family who responded to his timid knocking they heard him cry, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m the Jesus you say you love.” After a poignant pause the woman who stood in the doorway swept him into her arms and kissed him. From that day on that family cared for the boy as if he were one of their own.
When we look into the eyes of the bruised reeds and smoldering wicks we encounter each and every day of our lives, Do we say to ourselves: “He or she is the Jesus I say that I love”?
We all fall short. Don’t give up on yourself.
Ask Jesus to help you see people as He sees them. Don’t give up on others.
Jesus shows compassion for bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.
3. Jesus fights for justice and so should we.
Christians are to be above all, a people who bring hope to others. Sadly, in our day and age we have become known more by our bringing condemnation and judgment. We must learn to hate sin, but love sinners. We must learn to show compassion to those who are bound either by their own action or by the actions of others. We must find ways to reach out to the lepers and blind and lame in our society. We must care for the poor and the helpless and the widow. We must seek justice.
What would that look like in your situation? How can you get involved? Perhaps it is time for you to not just talk about abortion, but help out at a clinic like the Chester County Women’s Services. Perhaps instead of condemning that gay couple that live on your street, you should seek to befriend them to show them the love of Christ and attempt to bring them to faith in Him. Instead of seeing Muslims as terrorists and enemies, we can begin to get to know them. They are bruised reeds that need the love and grace of Christ.
Maybe you can visit the local nursing home and bring cheer to an abandoned older person, or take time to call on those who are sick or depressed. We can’t do everything, but we can do something!
What I am calling for, is not easy. It comes with a cost. We must learn to stop thinking so much about ourselves, and start looking for ways to care for others. We must give even when it hurts. We must love, even when we are bring rejected. And we must have compassion for those who have less.
Born over sixty years ago in Yugoslavia, Mother Teresa responded to God’s call on her life while still a teenager. A missionary’s strong challenge to give her life to teaching in India resulted in her appointment to the city of Calcutta. Some months later she saw a sight which completely revolutionized her life, and would ultimately bring her world-wide fame as Good Housekeeping magazine’s "Most-Admired-Woman" selection. What was the sight? A homeless, dying woman lying in the gutter, being eaten by rats. Compassion compelled her to beg an abandoned Hindu temple from the government, and convert it into a crude make-shift hospital for the dying. A comment of hers became her life’s thrust: "If there is a God in heaven, and a Christ we love, nobody should die alone."
In another story:
David Jeremiah, the founder of World Vision, the international Christian relief agency tells a story about Bob Pierce. Pierce had advanced leukemia, but he went to visit a colleague in Indonesia before he died. As they were walking through a small village, they came upon a young girl lying on a bamboo mat next to a river. She was dying of cancer and had only a short time to live.
Bob was indignant. He demanded to know why she wasn’t in a clinic. But his friend explained that she was from the jungle and wished to spend her last days next to the river, where it was cool and familiar. As Bob gazed at her, he felt such compassion that he got down on his knees in the mud, took her hand, and began stroking it. Although she didn’t understand him, he prayed for her. Afterward she looked up and said something.
"What did she say?" Bob asked his friend.
His friend replied, "She said, ’If I could only sleep again, if I could only sleep again.’" It seemed that her pain was too great to allow her the relief of rest.
Bob began to weep. Then he reached into his pocket and took out his own sleeping pills, the ones his doctor had given him because the pain from his leukemia was too great for him to sleep at night.
He handed the bottle to his friend. "You make sure this young lady gets a good night’s sleep," he said, "as long as these pills last."
Bob was ten days away from where he could get his prescription refilled. That meant ten painful and restless nights. That day his servanthood cost him greatly. But even in the midst of his suffering, God had infused a supernatural sense of satisfaction that he had done the right thing.
And one final story:
One winter night in 1935. LaGuardia - - the mayor of New York City showed up at a night court in the poorest ward in the city. He dismissed the judge and took over the bench. That night a tattered old women was brought before him for stealing a loaf of bread. She defended herself by saying “my daughter’s husband has deserted her, she is sick and the children are starving”.
The shopkeeper refused to drop the charges saying “It’s a bad neighborhood, your honor, and she has to be punished to teach other people a lesson.”
LaGuardia sighed; he turned to the women and said. “I’ve got to punish you, the law makes no exceptions. TEN DOLLARS OR TEN DAYS IN JAIL”
However even while pronouncing the sentence he was reaching into his pocket, He took out a ten-dollar bill, and threw it into his hat with these famous words: “Here is the ten dollar fine which I now remit, and furthermore I am fining everyone in this courtroom 50 cents for living in a town where a person has to steal bread to feed her starving grandchildren. Mr. Bailiff collect the fines and give them to the defendant”
The following day a new York paper reported “Forty seven dollars and fifty cents was turned over to a bewildered old grandmother who had stolen a loaf of bread to feed her starving grandchildren, making forced donations were a red faced shop keeper, seventy petty criminals, and a few New York policemen.”
You may not be a Mother Teresa, or a Bob Pierce, or a Mayor of New York City – but you are a child of God. You have been touched by the compassion of Jesus. He did not break you when you were bruised. He did not snuff out your smoldering wick. He showed overwhelming compassion to each one of us. Will we go and do the same?