Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sermon for July 3rd: Matthew 11:25-30

Some Things Only a Son Knows

In Tom Wright’s little book about Matthew’s Gospel I found this great story:

I went this morning to a memorial service to honour one of the world’s greatest sportsmen. Colin Cowdrey was one of the greatest cricketers of all time; not quite cricket’s Babe Ruth, but not far off. He was known and loved all around the world – not least in India, Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies, whose cricketers had learned to fear his extraordinary ability, and whose crowds had come to love him as a man, not just as a player.

The service was magnificent. Tributes flowed in from around the world; a former prime minister gave the main address; a special song had been written. But for me the most moving moment was when one of Cowdrey’s sons came forward and spoke of his father from his inside knowledge. This great public figure, who gave of himself in later life to every good cause he could find, had never lost his close and intimate love for his children and grandchildren. There were many fine stories which only a son could know, and only a son could tell. It was a heartwarming and uplifting occasion.

I wonder what it felt like for Colin Cowdrey’s son to sit in the memorial service and listen to all the other tributes being paid to his father? On the one hand, he must have thought, “This is wonderful! I’m so proud to be this man’s son!” But on the other hand there must have been times when he felt frustrated, because many of the tributes were based on knowledge of his father which was much more superficial than his. There must have been times when he could hardly wait to get to his feet and tell the inside story.

This story may give us an insight into what it meant to be Jesus, the Son of God, walking the earth and trying to share the truth about his Father with human beings. And not just with any human beings: with God’s chosen people Israel, who had been learning about God’s ways for a millennium and more. Was Jesus surprised by their lack of interest in the message he brought? It seems that he was. In verse 21 he reflects back on some of the cities in Galilee where he has been preaching and healing the sick. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes”. In other words, “If I did things like this among the pagan nations, they’d be turning to God by the thousands!”

The problem, of course, was that God’s people didn’t think they needed any help learning about God, and they certainly didn’t need it from an amateur! Who did he think he was, telling them about God? They’d been studying the Torah all their lives, and they knew all the explanations the rabbis had given down through the centuries applying each general law to specific situations. And then along comes Jesus, an uneducated upstart with a strong Galilean accent, and presumes to instruct them about God. They must have thought, “Go away to university for a decade, Jesus; then when you come back, we’ll talk!”

But Jesus’ knowledge of God came from a completely different source. Jesus had learned about God the way a son learns about his father – by living with him, by watching him at work and at play, by imitating him and learning to be like him. He was like an instinctive musician with perfect pitch, walking around among people who knew all about the history of classical music, but were entirely tone deaf themselves.

Think about how frustrating this must have been sometimes for Jesus! I’m a musician myself, and I have a pretty good ear as well. I can tell when my guitar is in tune or out of tune, even when no one else can hear it; I can tell when a singer is bang on, or flat or sharp. This isn’t something I’ve achieved by hard work, so I can’t take any credit for it; it’s something I was born with. And I often forget that other people don’t have it. It surprises me that they can’t hear the things that I can hear.

That must have been what it was like for Jesus to be walking around on this earth. We talk about people taking time to ‘discover who they are’. For Jesus, part of that process involved discovering that other people didn’t have the same kind of intimate knowledge of God that he had. There are some things about a father that only a son can know.

And so Jesus said these words in verse 27 which sound so arrogant and shocking and exclusive to us: “All 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”. The word for ‘handed over’ refers to the formal handing down of religious traditions from generation to generation. We would say, “The Anglican tradition has been handed down to us from our ancestors”. But Jesus speaks in a much more direct way: “I didn’t get it from my ancestors; I got it from my Father in heaven”.

If this sounds arrogant, let’s remember the story of Colin Cowdrey’s son at his father’s memorial service. Let’s imagine him again listening to the tributes people were paying to his father. Some of them might have caused him to quietly shake his head and think “No, that’s not right”. Others might have caused him to think, “Yes, I can see how it might have looked that way from the outside, but the inside story gives a very different picture”. The other things that were being said were not all wrong, but none of them were based on the kind of intimate knowledge that the son had of his father.

So there’s a paradox in these words of Jesus. On the one hand, there’s an exclusive claim Jesus makes: he has inside knowledge about God that no one else has ever had, before or since. But then immediately afterwards comes this wonderfully inclusive invitation: the Son has no interest in keeping his knowledge of the Father to himself. He wants to share it with everyone. He invites everyone to come to know God as he knows God, and so to find rest and release from the burdens they are carrying. And so he says,

“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” (vv.28-30).

It’s tempting for me to preach on this passage of Scripture in such a way as to offer you Jesus, the ultimate relaxation specialist, and St. Margaret’s as a sort of spiritual spa! But if I was to do that, I wouldn’t be faithful to the text. Because the kind of burdens that Jesus has in mind here are primarily religious burdens. Jesus is saying to his hearers, ‘The kind of religion you’ve learned from the experts doesn’t take the load off your shoulders; rather, it increases it. That’s not what I’m offering you today. I’m offering you a relationship with God that can give you rest from the burdens religion has laid on your back’.

I’ve seen these burdens. I’ve seen people who live in fear that, no matter how hard they try to keep God’s commandments, they’re never going to measure up. They’re never going to be good enough. They see God as a cruel taskmaster standing over their shoulders laying the burden of commandment after commandment on them, and if they slip up and don’t pull their weight - no heavenly reward for them! Some people are so scarred by this kind of religion that they turn away from God for the rest of their lives, never suspecting that the God they are turning away from is not the God Jesus told us about.

Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were probably tired of the weight of the religious traditions they’d inherited from their ancestors. What was the specific way in which an animal should be sacrificed? The law said not to work on the Sabbath, but what exactly was work? Was walking work, and if so, how far could you walk before it became work? What was the exactly correct way of washing your hands in order to be ritually clean before a meal? And so it went on – hundreds of ritual laws which had very little to do with loving God and loving your neighbour. But if you were a shepherd and had sheep to look after, how could you avoid breaking the sabbath? Or if you didn’t have access to clean water, how could you do the correct ritual washings? And so, for some people, the law stopped being a road to God and became instead a roadblock.

Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (v.30). Think about this word ‘yoke’. We’re talking about oxen here, and the wooden contraption that binds two of them together and allows them to cooperate in pulling a plough. Jesus was a carpenter; he’d probably made a good few yokes in his time, and he might even have advertised them with a slogan like “My yokes fit!”

This helps us to understand another paradox in these verses: in verse 28 Jesus promises us rest, but by the end of the passage he’s talking about us bearing his yoke, and that doesn’t sound like rest! But some translators have suggested that verse 30 might be better translated, not as ‘my yoke is easy’, but ‘my yoke fits well’. In other words, the yoke of discipleship Jesus lays on us is something that is suited exactly to us, and our condition. It’s not a way of life that adds to our burdens of guilt and fear and tiredness; rather, it sets us free, because it teaches us the way God designed for us to live in the first place.

The great Methodist preacher John Wesley discovered this way for himself. He had been brought up as a very religious person and devised all sorts of rules for himself. He was even ordained as a minister and went to the American colonies as a missionary. But his legalistic religion was a complete failure: it didn’t attract converts, and he was beginning to realise that it wasn’t working for him, either. And so he returned to England feeling like a failure; in his diary he wrote, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who will convert me?”

But that wasn’t the end of Wesley’s story. On the ship he met some Moravian Christians who impressed him with the joy of their faith, which seemed very far removed from the legalistic religion Wesley knew. Back in London, in May 1738, he attended a prayer meeting of Moravian Christians in Aldersgate Street. Someone was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, and the light went on for Wesley: he realised that Christianity wasn’t a scary religion of rule-keeping but a celebration of the love of God in Christ, and that he could received God’s love by faith and trust in Christ. He said that he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’. Years later, he would describe it as ‘exchanging the faith of a servant for the faith of a son’.

That can happen for you and me as well. We can discover a Christian life that’s not about keeping rules out of fear of God’s punishment; rather, it’s about learning to follow Jesus joyfully, in gratitude for the love of God that has been poured out on us through Christ. It’s about knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that we are loved by God, adopted as his children, gifted with his Holy Spirit – not because we earned it, but because God loves to give his gifts to his sons and daughters.

When Wesley discovered this kind of faith, it transformed him into a messenger; he travelled the length and breadth of England, preaching to huge crowds of people; thousands of them came to faith in Christ and experienced this joy and freedom for themselves. Legalistic religion can’t do that, because it doesn’t sound like good news. The true gospel of Christ can do that, because it lifts our burdens and puts a song in our hearts.

Do you have that song in your heart this morning? Let’s close by listening again to these words of Jesus, these words of invitation that go out to everyone: “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 fits well, and my burden is light”.

So – shall we come?

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