Thursday, July 6, 2017
Do you remember the book and movie The Polar Express? Like many "Christmas" stories, it centers on Santa Claus and whether growing-up children will continue to believe in him. The story uses a bell from Santa's sleigh as a device that shows whether someone still believes. To those who do believe, the bell rings with a beautiful sound. To those who do not believe, the bell is silent--presumed broken. If you do not believe in Santa Claus, there is nothing you can do to hear the bell. It just won't ring for you. Simple as that.
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30) is difficult is an understatement. All of us--preacher and congregation--will be challenged by Jesus' intimidating words. My friend, Steve Pankey, wrote about this challenge yesterday, which is why I'm still thinking about it today. He points out that Jesus' "comfortable words" about the yoke being easy and the burden being light sound almost ironic given the threatening words that surround them. I like how Steve handles that, and it's worth a read. I'm tacking that issue in a different way with this post. Instead of focusing on the words of reassurance and the need for God's help to ease our burden, I want to look for hope in the preceding verses about hearing Jesus' message like a child.
Our twenty-first-century sensibilities don't like it, but Jesus doesn't preach universalism. He preaches salvation for some and damnation for others. There's room for "expanding" that approach and making a universalist case from the gospel, but, for the most part, Jesus is pretty plain when he says that there are sheep and goats, wheat and weeds, those welcome at the banquet and those cast out into the outer darkness. There's good news within that, however. The basis for discrimination isn't whether you're a good person or a bad person but whether you believe that Jesus represents God's will for God's people. That means that those of us who identify Jesus as the one God sent to save the world are saved. It's grace. It's faith. But the bad news that we encounter in this gospel lesson is that, like the bell from The Polar Express, those of us who identify as wise and intelligent will never be able to make that connection. Only children--those who think like infants--will get it.
Jesus says, "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 pattern of obfuscation, which Jesus borrows from Isaiah 6, runs throughout the gospel. In this section, Jesus is using these words both as a judgment on the hot-or-cold reception that his words and deeds have already received as well as a judgment on the future of his ministry. In the verses that the lectionary omits, Jesus pronounces judgment upon Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum for not receiving the miracles he had done there. In the next chapter, Jesus is accused of letting his disciples break the sabbath by plucking grain, of breaking the sabbath himself by healing a man with a withered hand, and of being possessed by a demon. Then, in chapter 13, he will use the parable of the sower to describe how the word of God, which he has brought, falls in all different kinds of terrain, only bearing fruit in some, as the second half of bookended commentary on his opponents' willingness to receiving him as God-sent. And what is the subject of the difference? "Do you hear me as one who is wise and intelligent, or do you hear me as an infant?"
I have four children. None of them is an infant any longer, but the youngest is not quite two years old, so life with an infant is still pretty familiar. Infants don't care about details. They like the wrapping paper as much as the present. They don't ask where their food came from. If they like it, they eat it. If they don't, they won't. They don't worry about whether their diaper bag is from Prada or Target. They don't care whether you are black or white, liberal or conservative, or rich or poor. They don't care whether you have a criminal record. They don't care whether your jokes are funny, whether your stories are good, or whether you have a pretty voice. Most of the time, all infants care about is whether they are being held by someone who cares for them, whether they will be fed when they are hungry, and whether they will be changed when their diaper needs changing. Is that how we are receiving the good news of Jesus Christ?
The beauty of Jesus' message is that it's simple. It's all about love--radical, life-changing, earth-shattering love. In order to receive that message, we must let go of our worries about mortgage payments, power bills, and car notes. We must forget about what we eat and wear. We must not worry about the things that divide us. Like an infant, we must be willing to trade in our 401(k) for our next meal. We must be willing to open our door to anyone who brings us a shiny piece of cellophane. We must be willing to set aside all of our plans for tomorrow and all of our memories of the past to seize the moment that surrounds us. That's a terrible way to live in this world, but it's the only way we can live in the next.
If we find Jesus' words threatening, counter-productive, or hyperbolic, it's because we are trying to make sense of them as wise and intelligent people. And we'll never understand him as long as we approach the gospel like reasonable, rational people. We must become like infants--utterly foolish, utterly rash, utterly distractible infants. That's good news...unless you're one of the ones who can't hear it.