“A Bright Grace”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’;19the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”
25At that time Jesus said, “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; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All things have been handed over to me 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. 28Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (NRSV)
In Matthew 3, we meet John the Baptist, who is quite the paradox. First, he creeps out of the wilderness like some kind of beast. For clothing, he drapes camel’s skin around his body and cinches it with rawhide. He eats bugs right off the ground and honey he has robbed from wild bee hives. You can just see, stuck in amber crystals in his beard, bits of the gossamer wings and slender, bent legs of locusts. Then, all that feral mystique roars to life as John calls all the proper city folk from Jerusalem to prepare themselves for the kingdom of heaven by receiving a baptism of repentance. Without hesitation, the fierce prophet even scolds the powerful Pharisees and Sadducees calling them a “brood of vipers.”
When Jesus shows up and presents himself for baptism, John recognizes Jesus’ unique holiness and authority, and says it would be more appropriate for him to be baptized by Jesus.
Then, in Matthew 11, John’s fearless truth-telling has gotten him in trouble with Herod. While languishing in a Roman jail, John sends messengers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” The image of an incarcerated John wondering whether Jesus is actually the one whom John had already declared him to be presents a strikingly different image of the confident, outspoken prophet we met earlier.
After answering John with a cagey Yes, and after affirming John and his work, Jesus turns his attention to the crowds. Like John, he challenges them to do some honest self-examination.
You all are like a bunch of bored, unimaginative mall rats, hollering at each other in the food court. We tried to get your attention, but bless your hearts, you don’t know what you want! John came offering structure and limits, and you passed him off as prude. The Son of Man himself shows up ready to dance like nobody’s watching, and you look down your noses at him as if you’d suddenly frozen up like a bunch of Presbyterians! The proof of what people genuinely believe and trust is in the pudding of their actions, and you all are finding every possible excuse to do nothing!
Jesus is not advocating a shallow, self-serving works righteousness because salvation isn’t about who we are and what we do. It’s about who God is and what God does. That’s the whole point of grace.
Having said that, following Jesus is, quite frankly, a lot of work. We follow him not to earn what has already been given, but to inhabit and proclaim God’s kingdom, which is the new way of life that the gift creates. And a kingdom life takes discipline; that’s why it’s called discipleship.
Jesus acknowledges that discipleship is a formidable task, but he also says that it’s simple enough. It’s a life entrusted to compassion, justice, and joy. Children get it because they still have a broad sense of fairness, and they know what it’s like to entrust themselves to others. Jesus says that those who consider themselves “wise and intelligent” struggle because trust is something they’ve learned to give only to verified trustees. And in many, many cases, people who have been hurt by those they were supposed to be able to trust, simply cannot trust, anymore. That’s a tragic reality of the human condition, and those are not the “wise and intelligent” to whom Jesus refers. The “wise and intelligent” are those who have decided to trust themselves, their material advantage, and whatever they can quantify.
I’m eternally grateful that I had trustworthy adults and authority figures in my youth. I also like to imagine that I have at least some semblance of wisdom and intelligence, so I can sympathize with feelings of suspicion and reticence. If God is real, and to be trusted, why do things that seem so ungodly happen? Why do people, “good” or “bad,” get cancer, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and Covid? Why are some children born with challenges they’ll never overcome? Why do some people with less pigment in their skin regard and treat people who have more pigment in their skin with less respect and generosity? Why do nations keep gorging themselves on valuable resources that they convert into means to destroy fellow human beings and the earth, and then claim that those means and that violence are signs of God’sfavor and blessing?
It’s not hard to understand how people can decide that the idea of God is fiction, especially when considering the way religious people often use God to justify their own affluence and hostility.
And there’s the problem: Selfishness and brutality are the easy way. The life of faith takes hard work. It takes determination and conviction, imagination and creativity, patience and forgiveness. It takes all those gifts and characteristics Jesus names in the Beatitudes. (Mt. 5:1-12)
Now, here’s another paradox: The same Jesus who says, Take up your cross and follow me;
The same Jesus who says he comes not to bring peace but a sword;
The same Jesus who says that to save our lives we must lose them;
The same Jesus who says blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you on my account;
The same Jesus whose own burdensome yoke makes him pray for God to let this cup pass;
This same Jesus calls the work of discipleship an easy yoke and a light burden.
While this dissonance can confuse us, reconciling the hard work of discipleship and the gift of grace doesn’t take fancy theological gymnastics. It’s a matter of perspective. The hard work of discipleship is our grateful response to God’s gracious initiative. We are called to love as Jesus loves us. And the life of love is something we practice imperfectly, but the longer and more intentionally we follow Jesus’ ways of compassion, forgiveness, and justice, his yoke fits more naturally and his burden causes less strain.
“What Jesus offers is not freedom from work,” says homiletics professor Lance Pace, “but freedom from onerous labor.”1 Pace describes the yoke of Jesus as work with purpose, “purpose that demands [our] all and summons forth [our] best. …work that is motivated by a passionate desire to see God’s kingdom realized.”2
When John the Baptist asks if Jesus is “the one,” maybe he’s saying that if that’s the case, then he can trust that his incarceration will expose more than Herod’s transgressions. It will help to reveal the corrupt and systemically unjust ways of power when the powerful use it selfishly. And that yoke fits. That burden he can bear.
Yesterday I re-read Martin Luther King, Jr’s. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In this profoundly eloquent, prophetic, and love-wrought epistle, Dr. King calls religious leaders of all faith traditions to task for their reluctance to take on the yoke and the burden of solidarity with God’s love for all humankind, and especially for those who suffer discrimination and oppression. Toward the end of the letter, in the only light-hearted moment, King says that the nearly 7000-word missive may be a bit long. But, he says, “what else can one do when…alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?”
From his prison cell, Dr. King doesn’t have to ask if Jesus is “the one who is to come.” He declares it with his life, his voice, and his hope. His work is not without suffering, but neither is it without transforming purpose. In his words, I hear Dr. King’s willful acceptance of the yoke and the burden of his kingdom-realizing vocation to speak the truth of the gospel, to act for justice, and to celebrate his faith that he does it all in the bright grace of God’s love.
1Lance Pace, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year A, Vol. 3. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminster John Knox Press, 2011. p. 217.