A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (05/07/20): Come to Me, I Will Give You Rest

Come to me, I will give you rest Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 

There’s no pleasing some people There is just no pleasing people! “You people!” Jesus says, “You people! What are you like. You are like squabbling children, who can’t decide whose game to play. You won’t kick a ball when we want you to. You won’t play hide and seek when we want you to. You argue like that and end up playing nothing.”
There is just no pleasing people, John the Baptist came along with a message from God: “Repent, judgement is upon you!” He was all demand. He was quite literally “hair shirt.” He was out there in the desert shouting. And people said he was bonkers. So Jesus comes along with a message from God: “The kingdom of God had come very near to you.” He is all warmth an welcome. He goes where people are. He speaks to their need. He is welcome at their table and in parties. And people say he’s a drunk and glutton. There is just no pleasing some people.

There is a profound problem in trying to speak about God, or for God. You end up sounding one of two ways. You either end up sounding like a hectoring killjoy, or you end up sounding like a wishy-washy do-gooder. There’s nothing in between, and neither of those options is terribly attractive. It seems that when you speak about God what gets heard is one half of the message or the other, but almost never both together. So people hear the demand that God makes. They are told the world and the people in it is going wrong. They hear the demand for change. And they hear of the disastrous consequences if they don’t turn themselves and the world around. They hear hear the hectoring kill-joy John the Baptist and all the “thou shalt nots.” And they want nothing of it. It is all too repressive, too burdensome, and just plain mad. Or people hear the offer which God is making; “Come everyone is welcome. There is nothing that you have done that can hold you back or that can’t be set right.” They hear the inclusiveness of God’s invitation and welcome. They hear what they mistake for the voice of Jesus, that everything will be alright with him. And they think he’s a helpless and hopeless idealist. He seems to be just an ineffectual do-gooder that doesn’t seem to have grasped the harsh and cynical realities of life. They think they see a free pass for all the wicked, unsavoury, undesirable people in the world. They worry that all the harm and injustice in the world, especially directed against them, is going to go unanswered. There is just no pleasing some people. They want justice in the world, so long as it is directed against someone else. And the they want a welcome, so long as only they and people like them are included in the invitation. Karl Barth, the Swiss theologian, was once led to point out how unsettling a place the Kingdom of Heaven might be. He was asked whether we could expect to see our loved ones in the kingdom. He answered, “Yes, and everyone you hate.” The inevitable result of the partial or distorted hearing of the Gospel is that for the most part, by most people, it is rejected. 

Jesus saw this. One of the most encouraging features of the the story of Jesus is that even he didn’t convince everyone. At a time when it seems almost impossible to get a hearing for the Good News. And when it is even harder to get anyone to respond. I find it it somewhat reassuring that even Jesus struggled to be heard and accepted. He laments that he is confronted by a bunch of squabbling children. He criticises their contrariness:
It is like children sitting in the marketplace and calling to one another.
“We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.”
“We wailed for you, and you did not mourn.”
“You didn’t like John the Baptist because he never went to parties and made you feel guilty, but I come to your parties and make you welcome, and you don’t like me any better. There’s just no pleasing some people.”
But what Jesus does about it is striking. He doesn’t plunge into a bout of self-examination, questioning whether it is he who is mistaken. He doesn’t wonder how he can repackage his message to make it more accessible and more attractive. He doesn’t redouble his efforts to persuade or even cajole those who is not convincing. No! Typically for Jesus, he prays. His answer to those who reject him is prayer. But he doesn’t pray for their defeat or their destruction. Instead he turns his attention to those who accept his words and deeds. He prays to God and gives thanks for those who have heard and responded. Because there were some. And indeed, there remain some who hear and respond. And what is more, Jesus points us to who they are:
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”
At a certain level I think Jesus directs us to literal children. When he says “infants” it isn’t just a metaphor. I don’t see very many children in Church unfortunately. But those I do see “get it.” For the most part, from my observation, children grasp what is going on in worship in way that is different from and in some sense better than the adults. I see it most clearly at the communion rail. The children who come forward grasp that what they are being offered is something very special. It is too special to be put into words. And they know they have to respond. Children have yet lived long enough in the world to have been taught to ignore and reject the presence and reality of God. They still have wonder and the readiness to be amazed and just be glad. But it isn’t just children. When Jesus says “infants” it is also a metaphor. A few years ago there was an exchange between two American bishops, one an Anglican the other a Methodist. The Anglican was Shelby Spong who was famous or perhaps notorious for his liberal demythologised reading of scripture. He wanted to repackage the message of the gospel to make it palatable, acceptable to the affluent, educated people of 20th and 21st centuries. He pointed to his own daughter, who was a research scientist, her father questioned whether someone like that could be expected to believe the contents of the Bible. To which the Methodist bishop, Will Willimon replied: “I don’t know, I don’t what sort of a person is she? Does she like a good story? Does she have any imagination?” For Spong and presumably for his daughter the world had been reduced to a place of cold hard facts in which it was hard to find a place for the strangeness and wonder of the gospel. Willimon on the other hand was still prepared to accept a childlike view of the world that left room for the strange and the unexpected and for the wonderful, room for a story that might amaze and delight. Shelby Spong and perhaps more so the vociferous rejecters and deniers of God and religion are those whom Jesus labels “wise and intelligent.” The thing is that Intelligence and wisdom are so often just the names that we give to the power and the violence that we use to maintain our illusion that we are in control. The weak and the dispossessed, like children, have no such illusions. That is why it is they and those who identify with them are the ones who can hear the Good News, and for whom Jesus can give thanks.

The Jesus that most of his contemporaries rejected, like the Jesus that most people fail to respond to now, isn’t the real one. In the sense that it is a false picture of who Jesus is. Jesus says of himself:
All things have been handed over to my by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
This is one of those passages which tends to make us squirm a little. Because it contains the exclusive claim of Christianity. The claim that in everything Jesus is decisive. We started out with the problem of talking about God, and that such talks seems to please nobody. It is either to harsh and to weak, hectoring killjoy or wishy-washy do-gooder. The truth is that when Christians talk about God they cannot avoid talking about Jesus. The only way we know anything about God, or anything about what God might want, or about what God might offer, the only way is through Jesus. When we tell the story of Jesus we present both the demand and gift of God. And there is no other way to do that. The picture of Jesus and his message as ineffectual wishful thinking, as impractical do- goodery is as false as the picture of Jesus as a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus calls us to himself. Who he is makes the meaning of that call decisive. He is the one who speaks to God on our behalf. And he is the one who speaks for God in calling us. The two aspects, demand and promise, of talk about God held together. What we need to understand is the claim Christianity makes is that to come to Jesus is to come to God.

Jesus puts that invitation into some of the best loved word of the whole Bible:
Come to me, all you that weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
Or perhaps as some remember it better, from King James Version: “Come unto to me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Here salvation is defined as “rest.” Perhaps that is a definition of salvation that our culture/society might grasp. One of the reasons that some people do labour so hard, and are so heavy laden, is that they are striving for rest. They want to work themselves into a position where they don’t have to anymore. For young people the attractiveness of a celebrity lifestyle is that it gives the appearance of not including any work, or at least very little that might be considered wearisome labour. Jesus makes an invitation to those who are burdened. His invitation is to those who are weighed down by the way the world is. It is to those who have to work and who like almost everyone have no prospect of escaping from it. And for whom labouring has little purpose or meaning beyond keeping bread on the table and the wolf from the door. The rest which Jesus is offering is strange though. Not the idle luxury of the rich and powerful which some many long for. That in reality might be a rest which is as wearying as work. The rest which Jesus offers is strange, because it needs to be learned and it is symbolised by an implement of work: a yoke. The invitation which Jesus makes is to become disciples, followers of him and learners of his way. That in itself is rest. It is salvation. Because by learning to work in his way, to bear Jesus’ yoke we are set free from the much more burdensome yoke that others or even we ourselves would place on our shoulders. He sets us free not to be idle but to have meaning and purpose in everything we do. That is rest. That is peace in the midst of work, in the midst of unavoidably busy lives, rather that escape from it. The message from God and about God as it turns out is not hectoring killjoy nor wishy-washy do-goodery.  It is a message addressed to those who are worn down by the world as it, but who still have enough wonder and imagination to her and accept it .The message from God and about God is Jesus’ call to come to him, to follow him, into peace and rest, into the only life worth living.

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Come to Me, I Will Give You Rest by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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