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The One Who Sets Free
Series: Lenten/Eastertide Sermon Series
Leader: Rev. David Thomas
Scripture: Matthew 11:1-19, 25-30
Date: Mar 14th, 2021
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“What sort of man is this?” is the question that we’re looking at through these weeks of Lent.  We have an answer here at the end of our passage, so let’s begin with the ending.  He’s the man who says “Come.”  The man who issues an invitation to all.  He’s the man who issues the invitation.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

The question for us is, what do we do with that invitation?  It’s perhaps the question of our lives for those of us who hear it.  Isn’t it a welcome one?  “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

How many are weary?  How many are carrying heavy burdens?  How many are in need of rest?  How many of us are in need of ease and lightness?  I propose it’s the question of our lives because the thing is, we all carry a yoke.

The question for us is, whose yoke are we going to carry?  Our own?  One imposed by those around us?  One imposed by the larger society?  One offered by Christ?  Let’s ask for God’s help as we continue our journey toward Jerusalem and holy week.  Let’s pray.

These final verses with which we began are much cherished on their own.  This invitation to rest in Christ.  To rest with Christ.  The good news.  The gospel – literally good news. 

Reading over chapters 11 and 12, we find that this good news comes in the middle of a lot of questions and doubts.  It may be news to us that the life of faith is at times beset with doubts and questions.  Someone has said that the life of faith is more of a leap than a confident stroll.  It was like that for the earliest followers of Jesus and it is like that for us now.  A few years ago, the personal writings of Mother Theresa were made public.  Many were shocked to find out that Mother Theresa (of all people) harboured doubts about her faith, and they said “How could such a thing be?”  She wrote to a member of the clergy once “Jesus has a very special love for you.  As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen, and do not hear.”  In another letter, she wrote, “Please pray specifically for me that I may not spoil His work and that Our Lord may show himself – for there is such a terrible darkness within me as if everything was dead.”  “Pray that I keep smiling at God,” she wrote in another letter.  Pray that I keep my face turned toward God in spite of what I doubt, in spite of the questions I may ask.  Note that these doubts and questions were all expressed from a posture of faith.  Jesus has a very special love for you.  Talk of “His work” and “Our Lord.”  The enemy of faith is not doubt but fear.  Mother Theresa in her questions and doubts was in good company.  Look at the doubts those closest to Jesus had.  Thomas most famously (and always to my chagrin).  Look at the question that Jesus will ask his Father from the cross.

It was true in the first century and it is no less true today.  Human response to Jesus varies wildly, sometimes even within us.  Chapters 11 and 12 of the Gospel of Matthew are full of questions about and opposition to Jesus. This is the context in which we read these beautiful words of invitation.  It features many being indifferent to Jesus despite the miracles he’s working.  It features a group of people speaking out against Jesus’ ways, and going from that to figuring out how to kill him.  It features people demanding evidence, a sign.  It features those who are following him. It features this question from John the Baptist himself.  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  John is in prison.  The kingdom of God was supposed to be about setting prisoners free no?  Release to the captives.  This message doesn’t seem to be taking off.    John might well be thinking “Where is that winnowing fork and the fire and why hasn’t he yet marched on Jerusalem to overthrow the Romans and their client kings and set me free?”

Apart from those who follow him, Jesus is being met with hostility at worst and a lot of indifference at best.   Or maybe indifference is worse.  What do you think?  Do we ever wonder why this message of Jesus doesn’t seem to be taking off the way it should?  Might we almost welcome hostility to Jesus or ridicule of Jesus instead of the fact that Jesus seems in many ways to be largely ignored and seen as irrelevant in so many lives?

Why should this be?  Is it because of Sunday morning hockey? Is it the church?  Is it us?  Is it me?

Is he really the one who was to come or are we waiting for another?

I love very many things about Jesus.  One of the things I love the most is how he answers questions.  A lot of the time he answers a question with another question.  Here he gives this seemingly oblique answer that completely changes what we’re being invited to look at.  Jesus doesn’t even make any claim about himself here.  He doesn’t answer defensively or by attacking the questioner (so common these days) saying “Well what does Cousin John know?”

Instead, Jesus points to what is being revealed in him.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see.  The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”  In other words, people are being made whole.   To you followers of Christ out there, do we ever wonder how to share our faith?  Here we have from Jesus a really good example of how to share our faith. To those of you out there who aren’t following Christ but wonder what it means or what it might be like to, listen to this.  

I am being made whole.  I am being given eyes to see everything in a new light.  I am learning how to walk.  I am learning how to hear.  The poor are having good news brought to them.  These things are happening spiritually and they’re happening literally.  And it’s not just me, it’s happening to a bunch of us.

Because a new era has come about in the person of Christ Jesus.  John was the forerunner, the one who went ahead and pointed toward the one who was coming and pointed toward the kind of kingdom it would be.  It would not be the type of kingdom whose messengers and whose king would tell the people what they wanted to hear, as if we knew best what we needed to hear.  They would not be people and leaders who would do or say anything to hang onto power.  “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?  Someone dressed in soft robes?  Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.”  A reference no doubt, to Herod Antipas, the man who had imprisoned John for speaking out about him marrying his half-brother’s wife (but that’s a whole other story).   A man who was symbolized on coins by a reed and Jesus reminds everyone that reeds just get shaken by any little wind.  Is that who you went out into the wilderness to see?  No!  You went to see a prophet and not just any prophet but the last one. Because a new age has dawned.  If you’re willing to step into it.  Let anyone with ears listen!

It’s a tough message though, isn’t it?  We like prevailing wisdom in the same way reeds like prevailing winds.  Just go with them.  Prevailing wisdom might have said Jesus should target political and religious leaders of his day, really get this kingdom thing going.  Prevailing wisdom might say that a proper response to the violence that has been inflicted on this kingdom and that will be inflicted on this kingdom should be violence – proportional response is reasonable and just after all right? – rather than self-sacrificing forgiving love.

So the positive reaction’s not, shall we say, widespread.   Jesus tells a story.  This generation is like children sitting in a marketplace and you’re saying to one another “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” What’s going on here?  This is a mini parable.  The marketplace was where everyone gathered.  The place where things happened.  Apparently, children of the day would play weddings and funerals the same way kids playhouse or other games which mimic what they see adults do. Flutes were what you played at weddings to celebrate and facilitate the dancing.  Wailing was part of mourning at a funeral. The Kingdom of Heaven is marked by both mourning and celebration. You see them in John the Baptist and Jesus.  The Baptist came mourning with his camel hair clothes and fasting and people said “Oh he has a demon – crazy guy – no thanks” and Jesus came celebrating and eating and drinking and they said “Oh look a glutton and a drunkard and he’s friends with tax collectors and sinners – no thanks!” and you could almost see Jesus shaking his head here because apparently there is just no pleasing some people.

And is it any wonder really?  If you’re doing well in the marketplace, why would you listen to a bunch of children?

And aren’t so many of us in the affluent west doing rather well in the marketplace?  If you’re doing fine, why would you listen to a bunch of kids?  I wonder though how fine we’re really doing.

The children in the parable get it. Little wonder that a little later Jesus will call a child and place the child among his followers and say “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…” (18:2-3)

Which brings us back to our ending/beginning.  This wonderful glimpse into the relationship between Jesus and his Father as Jesus prays.  “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes Father for such was your gracious will.”  This is not an indictment of intelligence or our intellects.  It’s gracious because in Christ, God has shown that we don’t need to need to search for the answer to our weariness, to the things that burden us.  We don’t need to search for wisdom and the meaning of life at the top of a mountain because wisdom has come down to us, and wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

Which again are, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

We can get offended at offers of help, can’t we?  “You think I can’t do it on my own?” we say. It can be an affront to our sense of independence, our self-sufficiency.  “No I’m good thanks, I have my own thing going on,” we say.  “Give your help to those who truly need it,” we say “I don’t need a crutch.”  To which I say again “Are we really doing ok?”  Everyone wears a yoke. 

You know who doesn’t take offense at offers of help?  Children.  Children know they need help.  Nicole and I don’t have children of our own and I’m thankful for the children who have been around us.  I remember looking after a niece and nephew when they were quite small and being out on the street around Yonge and Eglinton.  When it came time to cross the street, our niece slipped her hand into mine like it was automatic.  Little children know their need for help.  Our wisdom and intelligence can get in the way, can’t it?  God has hidden these things from the wise and intelligent.  It doesn’t mean that we don’t value intellect or education – it means we don’t look at them pridefully or as the thing that will save us.  The one who will save us is the one to whom all things have been handed over by his Father, the one who knows the Father along with anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.  Because God plays a role in our coming to God, in case I thought it was all me and my ability to figure things out.  We play a role too, in case I thought it was all God and I guess that’s just the way the predestinarian cookie crumbles.  Always hold those things together lest we fall into error and needless speculation.

The invitation is to take this yoke of Christ. The paradox is that in this submission to Christ’s authority and God’s will and the Holy Spirit’s leading, we find freedom.  What a marvelous mystery and I can’t explain it but if you’re living it you know it.  There’s a lot of talk about freedom going on today – individual freedom.  Self-professed lovers of freedom.  A lot of belief that freedom consists in being able to do what you want to do. A lot of belief that freedom is doing what’s right in your own eyes.  Is it helping?  Christ’s invitation to freedom in his yoke is to find rest from weariness and heavy burdens.  It is to know peace and even joy in the midst of a lot of uncertainty and questions and even doubts, resting in the hope and love of Christ.  It is to find rest for our souls in the one who is gentle and humble in heart.  Palm Sunday is two weeks away and we’ll more about this then.  May this be an invitation we listen to and respond to this Lenten season and in the days and weeks to come.