Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
One of the most infuriating things about being the father of a two-and-a-half-year-old kid is the realization that that kid is smart enough to know that she wants something, but not rational enough yet to figure out what it is and be consistent about it. Let me explain what I mean: The other day we told Evie that she needed to pick up some of her toys before she could play with the ones she wanted to use. She very politely asked if I could help her, which I was more than happy to do. As soon as I started picking up a toy to put away, however, she yelled at me to stop and told me that she could do it all by herself. Then, when I put down the toy so that she could do it alone, she yelled at me again for not helping her!
What is a person supposed to do when they’re confronted with the kind of situation in which nothing is good enough? In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus is trying to figure that out. He’s found himself confronted by a generation of people who don’t seem to be satisfied with anything. God has sent two contrasting messengers to bring news about how the reign of God is breaking out, and neither of them is really getting through to anyone. John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, came preaching a harsh and demanding message: “Examine yourselves, prepare your hearts, turn your lives around for the coming of God’s chosen one! The axe is lying at the root of the tree; don’t get chopped down!” Some were receptive to that message, but most ignored John as a madman whose proclamation could be easily ignored. Jesus, on the other hand, came with an expansive and inclusive message: “The time is fulfilled, the reign of God is at hand! Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourners, the meek, the humble, the lowly, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the persecuted, everyone despised by the world!” A lot of people got behind that message too, but there were some who thought that Jesus was going too far, that he had let his standards slip when he said that anyone was welcome to follow him.
You can imagine the frustration that Jesus must have felt in seeing both of these messages going unheeded! God was reaching out, calling the people to recognize that something big was going on, and so many people were so convinced that they already knew what God was doing that they didn’t pay attention to the new thing that was happening right in front of them. As the Gospel goes on, Jesus becomes more and more aggravated, calling that generation perverse and wicked, evil and blind. It would be easy for us to smile and shake our heads at the people who didn’t get it, who had all the signs right in front of them and to understand the significance of Jesus’ ministry. It just so happens, however, that “this generation” is also this generation. If the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and the sending of the Holy Spirit mean anything, they mean that God isn’t finished speaking, that the signs of God’s presence that were witnessed by the generation that walked with Jesus didn’t stop once he was no longer bodily present. In too many ways to number, we are still “this generation”, the kind of people who can become so secure in our knowledge of what God must be doing that we can’t see God working through things that don’t fit our expectations. Yet, somehow, God seems insistent on eluding our boxes and labels, being at once too conservative and too liberal for us, surprising us with a gospel that both demands our all and gives us everything as a pure gift. Truth be told, those are two difficult ideas to hold together, and most of us find ourselves clinging more closely to one of those things than the other. Some people see the Christian life as a quest to follow rules as closely as we can, and imagine God as the stern taskmaster or the dutiful accountant who keeps records of everything we do. Others find the idea of God’s grace so intoxicating that they think it’s OK to do whatever they want without consequence, and they imagine God as the indulgent grandfather who overlooks our screw-ups and failures. Neither of these does justice to the picture of God we get in Scripture, nor to the gospel message that we are accepted as we are but not left to be who we once were.
It’s that surprising gospel message that we hear in the last three verses of our reading from Matthew today. Those verses are much beloved by many: Come to me, all you who 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. As comforting as it is to skip right to the part about finding rest, we do well not to skip over the part about the yoke. Jesus isn’t calling us to cast off all our cares and burdens and responsibilities – as if that could even be possible. He uses the image of a yoke – not the kind of yoke that enables two or more animals to share the load and pull together, but the kind of yoke for a single person, laid across the shoulders to help manage a load individually. There is still something being laid upon us: this way of discipleship that offers us both freedom from the task of saving ourselves by our own words and deeds and the obligation to bear the cross and die to our selfish desires each day. The promise is not that discipleship will result in carefree living, but that the way of life Jesus offers to us will “wear well”, that those burdens and responsibilities will somehow be easier to bear as we follow our teacher and Lord. The path we’re walking in pursuit of Jesus is not an easy one, and yet it is a better road for us to walk than the one we create for ourselves when we’re convinced that we know the way forward on our own.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, today’s gospel reading calls us to beware the temptation to be “that generation” who creates God in our own image. May we be like infants, who receive the signs of God’s power and presence breaking out in our world with wonder and amazement. May we refuse to be people who are never satisfied with the ways God’s truth comes to us in Jesus by the power of the Spirit. May we willingly take on the yoke of our teacher, knowing that that yoke will not release us from our burdens, but enable us to carry them with God’s grace and Christ’s strength into the future that God is preparing for us. Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.