Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather be afraid of God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
For only a penny can buy two sparrows, yet not one sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent. As for you, even the hairs of your head have all been counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!
[Jesus’ 12 disciples are sent out on a mission trip with these instructions. For background see Days 83-84.]
F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
Here in this scripture we have two ideas that are opposed in the primitive mind, but compatible in the enlightened mind of Jesus.
Idea #1 – Be afraid of God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
God is powerful and sovereign. He can do anything he wants. He brought us into this world and he can take us out. When there is a disaster they call it an act of God. He is God. He is to be feared and respected.
Idea #2 – So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!
God is kind and compassionate. He loves little sparrows and he loves us. He is our protector. He lifts up the humble and dispenses justice to the proud. God chooses to love us. Jesus tells us that God is our Father, patient and loving. Like a good father, he encourages us to do what is right. He comforts and defends us in times of trouble.
Pride and Pathos
What comes to mind when I see these two scriptures together is the story of the Willis family. Back in 1994 the Rev. Scott Willis, his wife Janet, and 6 of their 9 children were taking a little vacation when their minivan hit a piece of metal that had fallen off a truck. The metal pierced their gas tank and the van exploded in flames. Killed were Elizabeth and Peter, 6 weeks; Hank, 7; Sam, 9, and Joe, 11. Ben, 13, died a day later. The Willises were burned and required hospitalization. Janet Willis said that in the midst of the accident she remembers that her husband recited Psalm 34 – probably verse 19 – “The good man suffers many troubles, but the Lord saves him from them all.”
Later when they were in the hospital Scott comforted his family by reading from the Book of Job. Even before their burns were healed the Willises spoke to the world via a news conference from the hospital. Here are excerpts from the Chicago Tribune story:
Even in the first moments after they escaped from a sudden fire that consumed their mini-van and trapped six of their children, the Chicago minister and his wife did not question God. Recalling the moment after freeing themselves from the burning vehicle on a Milwaukee expressway last week, Janet Willis said that when she looked back toward the mini-van and began screaming “No!” her husband, Rev. Duane “Scott” Willis, touched her shoulder. “He said,`Janet, this is what we’ve been prepared for.’ And he was right. He said, `Janet, it was quick, and they’re with the Lord’. And he was right.”
Burned, bandaged and still in physical pain in a Milwaukee-area hospital, the couple displayed extraordinary grace and courage Wednesday as they calmly presided over a news conference they had requested to tell of how their unquestioning belief has sustained them through the loss of six of their nine children.
Sedated and still surely numbed by the tragedy, the couple said they derive strength from reciting passages from the Bible and comfort from watching videos of their lost children in their hospital room. “Janet and I have had to realize that we’re not taking a short view of life,” Scott Willis said. “We take the long view, and that includes eternal life.”
“As to the future, we will laugh and smile with tremendous memories of the kids,” he told reporters at Froedtert Memorial Hospital in Wauwatosa, Wis., where the couple are recovering from burn wounds. Scott Willis has face and hand burns, and Janet Willis has severe hand wounds.
The Willises asked for their meeting with reporters so they could thank rescue workers, their medical team and family and friends for support. Scott Willis also said he found it therapeutic to talk openly about the tragedy.
The extraordinary faith of the Willises focused national attention on the couple. Their unwavering faith inspired people all over the country. They quietly returned to their ministry, but God was stirred by their suffering and the wheels of justice began to turn. The death of the six children was an accident, but it was an accident waiting to happen and God, the Willises, and their supporters made sure that it would never happened again.
It turns out that driver of the rickety semi that caused the accident had procured his driver’s license illegally. The company he worked for had obtained the license by bribing an Illinois Driver’s License facility, and the tainted money was used to support Secretary of State George Ryan’s campaign for governor. A federal investigation was launched and ultimately 70 state officials, lobbyists, and others were convicted on corruption charges. In 2006 Governor Ryan was convicted on 18 felony corruption counts including racketeering, mail fraud, filing false tax returns, and lying to FBI agents while he served as Secretary of State. Under his administration more than 2,000 truckers received illegal Illinois driver’s licenses. Some of those truckers were involved in other crashes that killed 3 other people in addition to the Willis children.
Ryan was unrepentant and took no responsibility for the Willis tragedy. He expressed his condolences, but refused to apologize. The Willises could not understand this. Scott Willis expressed his desire for reconciliation in his letter to the judge before Ryan’s sentencing.
Our thoughts are not on punishment. That is for the court to decide. The real tragedy is that no reconciliation has yet been attained between George Ryan and Janet and me. My wife and I have a strong desire to forgive Gov. Ryan but it must be on an honest basis: sorrow and admission. Even a 6-year-old boy knows when he’s done wrong he needs to be truly sorry, and admit it. Then forgiveness and mercy can be graciously offered. That would be our joy.
Ryan was sentenced to 6½ years in prison and was required to serve his entire sentence. Ryan pleaded with the court to allow him to be with his beloved wife who was suffering from lung cancer. Ryan was a dedicated Christian, so I’m sure he prayed for mercy from God as well. He was briefly released to be with his wife as she lay on her death bed, but Ryan’s life of crime denied sweet Lura Lee the comfort of having her husband by her side during her final years as she fought the disease that killed her. In addition, Ryan was stripped of his $197,000 annual pension. All of the good that he did during his term of governor, like granting reprieves for Illinois inmates on death row, will always be overshadowed by the crimes that he committed – the kind of crimes that have always been generally accepted as “business as usual” in Illinois politics. “Victimless” crime. But this time it resulted in the deaths of six innocent children – six little sparrows that fell from the nest. And God, knowing about every hair on the heads of the suffering Willis family, released his justice like a raging flood throughout the corrupt Illinois political landscape, just to remind everyone that good triumphs over evil. Or maybe it wasn’t God – maybe it was God’s army here on earth, rising up and fighting for the Kingdom of God to be established; fighting for a just society; fighting for the right for nice families like the Willises to live happy, peaceful, uneventful lives. Maybe God’s army finally awakened from their stupor and took action.
I am reminded of the story of King Uzziah in 2 Chronicles 26:16-23. Uzziah had done great things, but his pride was his downfall.
But when King Uzziah became strong, he grew arrogant, and that led to his downfall. He defied the Lord his God by going into the Temple to burn incense on the altar of incense.Azariah the priest, accompanied by eighty strong and courageous priests, followed the king to resist him. They said, “Uzziah! You have no right to burn incense to the Lord. Only the priests who are descended from Aaron have been consecrated to do this. Leave this holy place. You have offended the Lord God, and you no longer have his blessing.”
Uzziah was standing there in the Temple beside the incense altar and was holding an incense burner. He became angry with the priests, and immediately a dreaded skin disease broke out on his forehead. Azariah and the other priests stared at the king’s forehead in horror and then forced him to leave the Temple. He hurried to get out, because the Lord had punished him.
For the rest of his life King Uzziah was ritually unclean because of his disease. Unable to enter the Temple again, he lived in his own house, relieved of all duties, while his son Jotham governed the country.
The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz recorded all the other things that King Uzziah did during his reign. Uzziah died and was buried in the royal burial ground, but because of his disease he was not buried in the royal tombs. His son Jotham succeeded him as king.
In 2011 Janet Willis released a book called What on Earth is Heaven Like. The Willises still maintain their unwavering faith that they will be reunited with their beloved children in heaven. God has comforted them in their grief (see Day 8). Actually they have probably received all of the promises in the Beatitudes, because they are Beatitudes kind of people. They have been an inspiration to the nation and they have used their tragedy to minister to others who are in pain. God has sustained them all these years and they have managed to carry on despite having to carry a burden of sorrow that is virtually unimaginable. But with God all things are possible, and the Willises are truly soldiers on the army of the Lord.
And so, back to where we started, Jesus asks us to hold these two seemingly opposing ideas in our minds.
God to George Ryan: Be afraid of God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell.
God to the Willis Family: So do not be afraid; you are worth much more than many sparrows!
What does this scripture say to you?