Childish or Child-like?

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Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
2nd Sunday after Trinity (3.7.2011)

If ever there was a passage that’s about you and me, right now here in this church this is it so - listen up! First I need to set it in its context.

A lady searching for the perfect birthday card for her husband found a promising one: "Sweetheart, you're the answer to my prayers." Then she turned to the inside, "You're not what I prayed for exactly, but apparently you are the answer." 

Something like that has been said by more than a few people here about me and something like that was probably running through John's mind as he sat in prison. Like all the Jews he’d hoped and prayed for the Messiah to come and conquer their enemies, establish a kingdom, and bring peace and prosperity. John had come to believe these prayers had been answered in his cousin, Jesus.

John had his own ministry until arrest - located in the wilderness near the Jordan, great crowds came to hear his powerful words about repentance from sin and right living. He didn’t mince words - he was abrasive, insulting, and that’s not to mention the wild hair, weird clothes and diet of locusts and honey. All came to hear his tough preaching telling them to prepare for the coming of Messiah.

Then one magnificent day Jesus came to the Jordan and John knew this was the one. After that, they went their separate ways - John continued with his powerful public proclamation; Jesus with his somewhat different approach. John was out there in the wilderness with locusts for lunch while Jesus was changing water into wine. John screamed at sinners; Jesus ate dinner with them. John preached fire and brimstone; Jesus preached "love one another."

In a filthy, dark prison John remembers his hopes about Jesus being the Messiah. There were intriguing stories of miraculous occurrences in places where Jesus was, but no indication of a revolution to overthrow foreign rulers. The Messiah? The answer to Israel's prayers? Well, Jesus, if you are, understand that you are NOT what we prayed for - AND . . . what am I doing in here?

He sends to ask ‘are you the one?’ Jesus, doesn’t answer straight out, but says, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor." Words out of the prophet Isaiah that indicated to an oppressed people that they were not alone; their God was with them. It sounds as if he is saying, "Go tell John that things may not be working out the way he imagined, but more and more, in surprising places, marvelous things are happening."

The thing is that for most of the Jews what was happening wasn’t what they were expecting. They probably didn’t quite know what they were looking for but were certain that would know it when they saw it. Which is why we’ve just heard Jesus comparing his fickle-fussy 1st-century hearers to spoiled children who’re never quite satisfied with what they have. “With what shall I compare this generation?” Jesus asks, rhetorically. “You are like spoiled children who are never happy with what is set before you. When I am serious, you say I don’t dance. When I am joyful, you say I am not serious. John the Baptist wouldn’t eat and drink with you and you called him ‘demon-possessed.’ I freely eat & drink with sinners, but you call me a glutton and a drunkard - a friend of sinners.”They were like children who can’t decide if they want to play wedding games or funeral games and who end up playing neither.

The people of Israel didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew what they liked; they didn’t like John very much, and they didn’t like Jesus at all. It’s because John and Jesus called the people to a life of discipleship. Jesus called them, not to follow a list of 600+ picky rules about how to dress, what to eat, how to wash their hands, and when to pray. Rather, Jesus called them to a life of loving God and serving people. And when he said “The journey won’t be easy, and the lifestyle won’t always be comfortable” people dismissed Jesus’ ideas because they preferred their manmade rules and traditions to God’s.

The Jews were looking for something or someone who would fulfill their need for a Messiah. They thought it would be a mighty king, or a powerful warrior, or deeply religious person who observed every law and tradition in the rabbinical code. In truth, they were too pompous, and too proud to recognize that the Saviour, Christ, was right in their midst. He was hidden from their self-righteous eyes. He was too common, too simple, and certainly not religious enough to be THEIR messiah. The fairy tale about “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is the perfect allegory for those first-century Jews. The proud ones didn’t see what was in plain sight…but the children did.  “I praise you father, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to children.”

“These things” that Jesus was referring to was actually Jesus himself. The “wise and intelligent ones” were the religious leaders of the synagogue, the holy and righteous Pharisees who followed all the rules and traditions and condemned those who didn’t. And the children weren’t children but were the sinners who knew that they didn’t belong; the ones who realized they’d broken every one of the 600+ Jewish laws. They had no cause to think that the manmade rules could save them but they knew what they saw in Jesus spoke of forgiveness, and offered them a second chance like a life-jacket in the midst of a stormy sea. These infants could see what the wise couldn’t. That Jesus is sent by the Father and reveals the Father 11:27.

Isn’t it interesting, common sinful folk knew a secret that was unknown by the brightest and holiest people in the community? That everybody’s a sinner, that Jesus came to love sinners, and offer them a 2nd chance. A great theologian of the 20th century, Paul Tillich, when asked to define what a Christian is, said “Oh, that’s easy; a Christian is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.”

Not beggars! Not even sinners! Maybe recognizing they used to be, but not anymore. And that sort of attitude is not only a myth, but repels the people whom Jesus is actually in the business of urging us to reach out to…the ones who know the secret; that Jesus’ primary purpose in coming to the world was not to tell us to straighten up and fly right but to tell us that we are beggars, and He is the food.

Oh that we would see ourselves as beggars. With empty hands, confessing to God that we’re not righteous but sinful and messed up. That’s the difference between being childish and thinking we can pick and choose who and how we are and being childlike and accepting we don’t know it all and need the forgiveness and the offer of a personal loving relationship that Jesus offers.

The religious people then (Pharisees) had 600+ rules and regulations not about the faith law per se; rather their particular interpretation and practice of the faith that they lived by & expected others to follow. Jesus criticised them for the unrealistic burden they imposed upon people. A burden they never helped lift by showing a way into real faith. And so Jesus says to this group struggling under this burden of trying to obey religious rules and traditions ‘Come to me and I will give you rest’.

Yokes were designed to make carrying a load easier and were made to measure for a perfect fit - 'easy' means 'well-fitting'. Jesus yoke for us is made just for us, and its a yoke for two - we're in partnership with him. Jesus is calling people to carry his load and learn (yoke was also a metaphor for wisdom) from him. Jesus isn't saying following him involves no responsibilities, no load at all. He's saying that we need to do it His way - not ours.

Earlier we were reminded that following Jesus involves becoming like a child. Jesus said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children."

We might infer that it is his teaching, his way of discipleship, which is not burdensome but life-giving. He invites the weary to learn from him, for he is not a tyrant who lords it over his disciples, but is "gentle and humble in heart." His yoke is easy (easy-fitting and so "good" or "kind") and his burden is light. To take his yoke upon one-self is to be yoked to the one in whom God's kingdom of justice, mercy, and compassion is breaking into this world, and to find the rest for which the soul longs.

Being a child of God involves realising that we cannot earn God's approval, either by being good or following rules and traditions. God’s grace meant that Jesus has done that for us, and has chosen us to follow him. And so in this passage Jesus is saying walk with me. He is saying learn from me. And in learning from me you will find rest, relief. And we learn from him by being in His presence. To do that we need to take time out from our busy lives to spend time with Him. (motorway service signs Prayer, Fuel-pump = keep being filled with HS to be powered-up. Food-sign = feed on word of God. Bed-sign = rest in God, not be so busy we haven't got time to rest in God's love.)

Jesus says: Come. This is a command not an invitation. He urges us who are weary and heavy laden (those who know they’re not perfect and haven’t got it all right) and He promises rest - not the rest where we can put our feet up and no longer have burdens but the help we need in our responsibilities and lives as Christian disciples?- so we, like Him can be the one for others – i.e THE one.

Jesus says, "Come to me... and I will give you rest."  It is not that Jesus invites us to a life of ease. Following him will be full of risks and challenges, as he has made abundantly clear. He calls us to a life of humble service, but it is a life of freedom and joy instead of slavery. It is life yoked to Jesus under God's gracious and merciful reign, free from the burden of sin and the need to prove oneself, free to rest deeply and securely in God's grace. Amen

Prayer

God of our salvation:
Save us from being like the children in the market place,
always looking to find fault,
to pick holes at whatever anyone does or says,
happy to stand on the sidelines and look on,
never to risk being part of the action.
Make us rather like those who will join in the game,
share in the dance, risk our reputation, risk making mistakes.
Give us the courage to join in that pilgrimage
to a new world, on the way Christ has led us.
In his name. Amen