The weight of small words

Saturday, April 4, 2009

There is some food that is so good to eat it sets my mouth to watering. Chicken on biscuits, for example. Angelfood cake, with or without icing. All of us probably have our favorites. Since coming to Southeast Missouri, I have had the best bean soup of my life in a little country store in Leopold that serves lunch to a coterie of regular customers. Last week, in a Carterville, Ill., restaurant, I enjoyed an outstanding serving of green beans. Slow-cooked with bits of bacon, I finished every morsel. My taste buds will remember.

Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that Jesus of Nazareth decided to impart his last message before crucifixion over a meal. Connecting "this is my body" to the ingestion of unleavened bread and "this is my blood" to the consuming of wine was a master stroke by a Lord who understood people only too well.

When a wonderful meal is recalled, we tend to recount the tale using extravagant language. Many superlatives are employed -- as in the adjectives "great," "tremendous" and "terrific." When the description moves from adjective to adverb, however, we've entered a whole new arena of historical recital. The adverb "so" is a case in point.

Have you ever had a meal that was so good the memory of it just makes you smile?

Have you ever witnessed an action that was so selfless that recalling it to mind makes you grateful?

It is the latter question to which the remainder of this column is addressed. From the third chapter of John, Jesus has an encounter with Nicodemus, a Pharisaic big shot, a member of the Jewish ruling council. Attracted to the teachings of Jesus, he meets with the Lord at night. Presumably, Nicodemus feared being seen in Jesus' company. While he was curious about what Jesus had to say, he was also skeptical -- gently scoffing at the notion that a person could be born from above. (v. 3) Jesus, however, patiently answers Nicodemus' questions. As Jesus finishes his conversation with the Pharisee, John adds this postscript -- one of the most famous verses in all of the Bible. (Note the use of our highlighted adverb):

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life." (v. 16)

God didn't just love the world; God so loved the world. Love was not shown in mere words or by pats on the back or by a warm embrace. Love was shown in action -- a selfless, painful, irrevocable death on a cross. Love for friends, love for strangers, love for enemies, love for those yet unborn.

The skeptical Nicodemus in John 3 becomes the committed disciple of John 19. Nicodemus had become -- note the adverb -- so convinced of Jesus' Messiahship that he turns daring. Once fearful of being seen by fellow Pharisees at their first meeting (at night), Nicodemus -- in broad daylight, his colors now on display for friend and foe to see -- helps Joseph of Arimethea bury Jesus after the crucifixion. Remember that Jewish law held that the dead must be buried or entombed before the sun went down.

During this coming Holy Week, do not discount the power of "so," a most powerful adverb.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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