Sunday, July 6, 2014

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Zechariah 9:9-12
Psalm 145:1-14
Romans 7:14-25a
Matthew 11:25-30

At that season Jesus answered and said, I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou didst hide these things from the wise and understanding, and didst reveal them unto babes: yea, Father, for so it was well-pleasing in thy sight.

Matthew is a brilliant storyteller. He was an accountant (tax collector) so his Gospel is written from a logical, almost mathematical, point of view. He has organized his thoughts in a way that first reports what Jesus has to say and then shows Jesus living in very real and tangible ways the truths He has spoken. Take, for instance, the Sermon on the Mount, chapters five through seven. Matthew has taken the wise words of Jesus, probably spoken throughout His ministry, and put them into a coherent and powerful message about the Kingdom of God and how believers are called to live in it. Any life in Godís kingdom begins with healing, so in chapters eight and nine, Matthew shows Jesus touching the lives of those He is calling to faith in very real ways. There are ten acts of deliverance in those chapters, related to the wisdom spoken in the sermon.

We can see this pattern of discourse and then living throughout the book of Matthew, ultimately ending with His revelation that He would die and then His death on the cross. Jesus didnít just talk the talk, He walked the walk. Then He calls us to do the same.

For the past couple of weeks we saw Jesus sending the disciples out into the world to share the Kingdom and to heal. The texts were from chapter ten. (See, Jesus speaks, demonstrates and then sends.) He warned them that it wouldnít be easy. In the chapter Jesus tells the disciples that the people would reject them. He warned that the leaders would threaten them. The persecution would even come from the people who are closest to them: their families. Jesus lives these words in chapters eleven and twelve. First the people reject Him. Then the leaders threaten Him. And finally, in 12:46-50, even His family questions His sanity.

Our text from Matthew for this Sunday shows us that Jesus does not send us out in the world alone. It is a moment of comfort in the midst of the frightening reality: He has chosen us, and because He has chosen us, He will ensure that we have everything we need. The work He is calling us to do might seem hard, after all we live in a world that demands exactly the opposite of what Jesus expects. We live in a world that is self-centered, in which people are encouraged to follow their own hearts and do what feels right to them. We live in a world that has rejected God, His Word and even the reality of our human sinfulness. The people in this world do not believe we need a Savior; they have nothing for which to be forgiven or even healed. We will be rejected because the message we bring calls for repentance, humility and self-denial.

It is the one who repents, who is humble and who trusts in someone greater than self who will hear and receive the Kingdom of God. Matthew calls them ďlittle children.Ē What is it about children that make them so receptive to the Gospel? For one thing, children are innocent. I donít mean that in the legal sense as in they are innocent of crime or even sin. After all, we know that all flesh, even babies, have inherited a nature that is separated from God. We all, from the smallest to the oldest, need Godís forgiveness made available by the blood of Jesus Christ.

No, they are innocent in the sense that they have no yet experienced the world in a way that would lead them to doubt or to cynicism. This isnít a lack of understanding between goodness and badness; as a matter of fact, children tend to be much more discerning than most adults. Children still see the good in people. They see the cup as half full. They find joy in places where adults canít seem to see it. They trust those who are given charge over them. They believe in things that are beyond belief to most intellectual, thinking adults.

It is their innocence, their trust, which allows them to see that which is hidden. We intellectuals tend to think about things to the point of confusing ourselves with details that simply donít matter. We want answers. We want to know the meaning of life. We want to know our purpose so that we can go out there and do it. We want to understand the mysteries of faith. We debate and argue over the meaning of communion and baptism and the parables, but in doing so we often lose sight of the love of God. Iíve often joked about how I canít wait to get to heaven so that Jesus and I can sit together over a glass of sweet tea and discuss all the questions I have. I want Him to answer everything that I havenít been able to answer with my mind.

Hereís the thing: we donít always need those answers. Children donít. Children simply believe. Who doesnít love the child in worship who blurts out ďAmenĒ with passion and enthusiasm in the middle of worship? Who hasnít chuckled with joy when that little voice begins singing ďJesus loves meĒ in the back pew during the prayers? What youth minister doesnít know that the correct answer to every question in the childrenís sermon is ďJesus?Ē Children donít need to know that Jonahís whale was probably a big fish or that the fruit in the Garden of Eden was probably not an apple. They know that Jesus loves them, and thatís what matters.

If only weíd live our life with such simple faith.

We burden ourselves with this intellectual quest for understanding, when God is always willing to reveal everything to the one who will trust in Him. His yoke is easy and His burden is light. As we trust in Him we discover that we do not have to carry it alone; as a matter of fact, Jesus carries it for us. In His yoke, we find rest.

The Jews thought they understood what God expected. They had interpreted and reinterpreted the Law to the point that it was too heavy a burden for anyone to carry. The picayune details like how many steps they could walk and what constituted Ďworkí made it impossible for the people to see Godís grace through their quest for righteousness, or should we say self-righteousness. Yet, the wise and understanding among Godís leaders thought that this was necessary to entice God to be faithful to His promises. If the people repented, perhaps God would finally send the Messiah. They didnít trust in God, they trusted in their own ideas and actions.

They missed it. They were so busy trying to be righteous and to intellectually understand Godís Word that they had stopped trusting in Him. They were looking for a powerful, military commander to defeat the Romans. Many came forward as false Messiahs, promising peace through war. There was certainly some Old Testament prophecy that indicated that God would send someone to set them free. They didnít recognize the prophecy of the humble and peacekeeping king as we see in todayís Old Testament lesson. Perhaps they did; perhaps they did know that the Messiah could be the suffering servant as described throughout the Old Testament. But they wanted a Christ who would do battle for them. The idea of a Messiah bringing grace, forgiveness and peace did not fit their expectation. It isnít what they wanted.

Jesus did not come with swords and chariots to drive the unrighteous out of Jerusalem. He did not even come to make changes to the temporal world. He came to reveal the kingdom of God. He did this by quietly calling people into His presence, by speaking stories about faith and by touching the lives of those who crossed His path. He did not force people to follow, but rather drew them into His heart and called them to follow. The prophecy in Zechariah was fulfilled on Palm Sunday as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, and then Jesus died so that we can welcomed into the Kingdom He was preparing for us. In His death and resurrection, we find true peace. It is a lasting peace because it takes us into eternal life.

This peace is worth our attention and the One who gives it is worthy of our praise. Todayís psalm is prayer of praise of the lovingkindness of God. The entire psalm is an acrostic, a poem in which each verse begins with a different letter of the alphabet. This brilliant poetry is hidden from us in English and our passage is just a part of the entire psalm, but it is interesting to think about the importance of this literary technique. The psalmist literally and literarily found a way to praise God from ďA to Z.Ē How often do we think so much about Godís grace that we can write a poem using every letter of our alphabet? We usually spend our time thinking about how to use our knowledge of God to knock others down or force them to do our bidding. Instead of trusting in God and being thankful for His lovingkindness, we establish rules like the Pharisees and place heavy burdens on our neighbors.

The word ďlovingkindnessĒ could be simplified to mean ďniceĒ but that does not describe the depth of the meaning in this passage. Lovingkindness is compassion, mercy: the sympathetic concern for the suffering of another. It comes from the Hebrew word ďchesedĒ which means much more than niceness. It can be described as an action that is not warranted by the circumstances. We think of compassion as meeting the needs of those who need our help, but chesed actually initiates the relationship. It is compassion that goes out even before the needs are known.

Lovingkindness is proactive. God Almighty, through Jesus Christ our Lord, has shown the most incredible compassion of all. His goodness is for all He has made; His love is for everyone. Christ died for sinners even before we knew we were sinners. He died for us even before we were born. Godís lovingkindness is proactive, coming to us long before we even knew we needed it. God has revealed this to those of us who have heard the Gospel like children, trusting in Godís Word above our own selfishness and self-centeredness.

Even now that are many in our world who do not know they need the mercy and grace of God. They do not accept the forgiveness that comes from faith because they do not believe they have anything to be forgiven. They continue to seek answers to questions that do not really matter, attempting to confine God to an intellectual or self-serving role in their life. That often leads to a total rejection of Godís grace, but at the very least it makes a person misunderstand what God is doing and what God can do.

Christians who have heard the Word and have seen the light are Godís instruments of His grace and lovingkindness. Through us, all men will know of Godís mighty acts, the splendor of His kingdom. The psalmist praised God so that others might hear of the acts of the One from whom we receive the unmerited favor of His blessings. We, His saints, are called to sing His praise, to speak of the glory of His kingdom. We speak these words not only to praise God, but so that others might hear and believe. These very words are the ones that will cause us the trouble about which Jesus warned. We will face rejection, threats and persecution, not only from our neighbors and the leaders of the world, but even our families.

We say these words anyway because we believe. We have that childlike, innocent trust that God is with us. He will take care of us, even into death. We wonít die, even if our flesh dies, because God has promised us life. Can we explain this with our heads? Can we recite all the scriptures and make it abundantly clear to our neighbors? No. It hasnít been revealed to us because we are smart enough or knowledgeable enough. It has been revealed to us because we are like little children, trusting in God and taking up the yoke which Jesus Christ offers.

There is a story about an encounter that St. Augustine had with a young boy on a beach. When St. Augustine asked what the child was doing, he answered that he was building a trench. ďWhy?Ē Augustine asked. ďI am going to empty the ocean into my trench. As Augustine continued along the beach, he thought about the silliness of the young boyís goal. It is impossible to fit the entire ocean into a small trench on the beach. Yet, we all do the same thing when it comes to trying to understand God. He is much greater than we can even imagine.

In another story, an old man comes across a young boy on the beach, throwing starfish into the ocean. The old man noticed that there were hundreds of the starfish marooned on the sand and wondered what the boy hoped to accomplish. The boy said, ďIím saving the starfish.Ē The man laughed at how absurd it was for the boy to think he could possibly save the starfish. However, with each toss, the boy saved one life. The overwhelming number of starfish did not stop him from trying to do something for some.

If only weíd live our life with such simple faith.

This is not to say that we should ignore Bible study or stop being theologians in this world. The more we do understand about God and His Word, the better able we are to share it with our neighbors. Unfortunately, we are often so overwhelmed by how much we donít know about God that we give up. While we are called to the simple faith of a child, we are also reminded that the time should come when we are eating more than just milk. We have to get into the meat. But there is a balance between that simple faith and the intellectual quest of understanding and it is found in our Lord Jesus Christ. The balance is held together by trusting in Him, taking upon ourselves His yoke, which is easy and light. He makes it possible for us to see God as was never before possible. Jesus is God made flesh, a perfect representation of that which was impossible to see before He came. God will always be greater than we can imagine, a mystery in so many ways, but we have a place to start: Jesus. He makes God available to all the little children, and the big children, in a very personal and intimate way.

Paul is absolutely honest. He is often harsh in his letters, saying what most of us think but would never say out loud. He is willing to call a sin a sin and to admit that he is the worst of sinners. In his letter to the Romans, he talks about his inability to be all he wants to be, the perfect Christian, a righteous person. He admits his frailty and his lack of control. He wants to do what is right and avoid what is wrong, but he recognizes and confesses his failure.

We donít want to be like children. We are independent, intelligent adults. We donít want to trust in someone greater than ourselves. We donít want to admit our failure. We might prefer to think about our faith and the things of God in an intellectual manner, but we have to remember that our answers, our opinions, are often self-centered and selfish. They are based on our own very limited point of view. We can fail. We can make mistakes. We can say and do the wrong things. And, as Paul suggests, it is most likely that weíll do things wrong, especially if we rely on our own power.

We want to be perfect because we think that we can make ourselves right with God. We canít. We might end up fixing some things, but there are always buried sins that keep us from being truly free in Christ. No matter how good we think we appear, we are still sinners in need of a Savior. Like Paul, we will do what we donít want to do and we will not do what we want to do. We donít need to carry that burden on our own. Jesus Christ has already won for us the forgiveness and He stays with us, granting us the strength and courage to be transformed, so that we can be everything God has created and redeemed us to be.

His yoke is easy and His burden is light. So, let us be as children with that simple faith, casting off the burdens that we have tried to carry on our own and taking the yoke of Jesus. He does not burden us with anything He has not first accomplished for us. As we walk with Him, He will teach us all we need to know about the Kingdom of God. There in His presence, we will find rest.

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