Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
John and Jesus were related. Their mothers, Elizabeth and Mary had been cousins and they were probably pretty good friends as well. Though the women were different ages, they shared an important bond of friendship and shared experience. They had been pregnant at the same time (a first child for each of them) and it was a bit of a miracle for them both as well.
I wonder if John and Jesus spent much time together as they were growing up. And I wonder if they were friends. The only Gospel story we have about Jesus’ childhood is the one where the whole family goes to Jerusalem for one of the festivals. It’s the story where Jesus gets left behind while the rest of the family starts heading for home. He gets caught up in the temple talking about God with the older men. And no one even notices that Jesus is gone until they are well on their way home. I wonder if John was the second-cousin who reported him missing.
Anyway, they could scarcely be more different, these two, at least by the time they had grown up: John, the bug-eating wilderness prophet, and Jesus, who was known to love a good meal with all kinds of company; John, who wore scratchy shirts on purpose, and Jesus, who could occasionally be persuaded to invoke the power of YHWH to keep the wine flowing at a wedding reception; John, who addressed the people who came to hear his preaching as a “brood of vipers,” pointing out their sins and failings and urging them to repent before it’s too late, and Jesus, who in Matthew opens his signature sermon with congratulations… Blessed are you who are poor, blessed are you who are meek, blessed are you who are peace makers… Jesus, who fed people, and healed people, and who told story after story about the amazing grace, and love, and forgiveness of God.
John and Jesus turned out to be so different… but they came to a similar end, if you think about it. They both attracted crowds and a lot of attention for a while. They both gathered a following. But they both got people angry and upset with them, and they both ended up dead… John, with his head cut off and displayed on a platter, Jesus, whipped and stripped, and hung on a cross to die.
In Matthew 11, the section before this morning’s Gospel reading, the author is trying to make sense of these two and their roles. At this point in the story, John the Baptist is in prison, but he’s been hearing about what Jesus is doing. So John sends word by his disciples to ask Jesus a question. He asks, “Are you the one who is to come… [are you the Messiah] or are we to wait for another?” And Jesus encourages the disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Then Jesus tells a parable about the differences between himself and John and the rejection they have in common. He compares the people of his time to fickle children who keep changing the rules of the game. He points out that John came “neither eating nor drinking.” John lived out in the wilderness, survived on locusts and wild honey, and with strong and sometimes harsh words, he called the people to repentance – to turn their sinful lives towards God and God’s ways. And they did not care for his style at all. He was too old school for their taste – too stern and demanding. So they played the flute, and said, “Come on, John, lighten up. Lay off the hellfire, and dance to our tune.”
Then Jesus came and he was ready to dance – to dance as they had never dreamed! Every meal was a party, as long as everyone was invited. But they had complaints about him too. They wailed about the company Jesus kept and called him a “glutton” and a “drunkard.”
While John was almost too religious for them, and demanded too much, Jesus didn’t seem religious enough. It was obvious that he knew the scriptures pretty well, but then he’d go and break the rules when he wanted to. He even performed healings on the Sabbath day, and that just wasn’t acceptable by any religious standards.
It seems to me that people today aren’t so different from the people back in the time of John and Jesus. Most of us who get involved in some kind of religion have an idea of what we’re looking for, of what we’re hoping to get out of our faith, or out of our church. And we get turned off by certain emphases that we encounter in different churches or from different ministers.
For some of us it’s the harsh and demanding preaching that’s difficult to take. We don’t appreciate coming to church and being reminded of all the mistakes we’ve made during the week. It makes us feel guilty, and that isn’t a very nice feeling. We don’t want to be judged. And we don’t want to become judgmental ourselves. And so we avoid those churches.
But for others, it’s the lovey dovey stuff we’re hearing that gets on our nerves. God is love. And everyone is welcome and affirmed no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done or what they’ve failed to do. It’s almost like there are no expectations anymore for how God wants us to live. And so we avoid those churches.
But John and Jesus were both sent by God. In Matthew 11, Jesus speaks very highly of John the Baptist. Jesus calls John the messenger who was sent to prepare his way. And so somehow, the urgent message of repentance and the comforting message of God’s grace and love are both a part of the Gospel of God.
In a reflection on today’s text, Lance Pape writes that God’s ways can be both too little and too much for us – God’s agenda somehow simultaneously too “conservative” and too “liberal.” We chafe under John’s unapologetic insistence that a moment of decision is at hand for each of us – that we must examine our hearts, let the chaff burn away, and embrace God’s future with our whole lives.
However, Jesus can also rub us the wrong way. In his irrational exuberance he just does not seem to grasp that some people are beyond hope – that we must keep select company in order to keep our lives on an even keel.
Both of these messages are a threat to our hard-won autonomy. We long to maintain a happy medium between John’s stifling demands and Jesus’ frightening inclusiveness. So we keep changing our tune, insisting on the moderation (or is it the mediocrity?) that we can secure for ourselves, not the extraordinary future that God dreams for us and the world.
It seems to me that the Gospel calls us, not to choose an emphasis that works for us, nor to take a little of each perspective and to try to find a good balance. Instead, we need good healthy servings of both John and Jesus. We need to listen to that urgent call to repentance and turn away from sin and towards goodness, and righteousness, and justice in every aspect of our lives. And we also need to know, in the depths of our hearts, that no matter who we are, or what we have done, or how many times we have failed in that turning, that we are held and embraced by the merciful and loving arms of God.
I think the apostle Paul understood that he needed both. In our reading this morning, we heard him struggling with his inability, despite his best intentions to do good. He wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Wretched man that I am!”
In other words, Paul was still trying to live according to God’s ways and God’s laws. He was still trying to turn his life away from sin and towards goodness and love. He was trying, and at times failing, and he was trying some more. But when it came down to it, he knew that God was gracious. He knew that God loved him. And in Jesus Christ, God had forgiven him for all the times when he just couldn’t manage to do the good that he wanted and intended to do. Paul wrote, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” And then he answered his own question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Jesus knew that following the commandments of God isn’t easy. And he knew that loving one another – loving our friends, and our neighbours, and our enemies – is easier said than done. He compared it to a yoke across our shoulders, to a burden that we have to carry. And that may well be how we experience our faith at times. But it is a burden that we do not have to carry alone. It is a yoke that we can share with Christ, so much so that it even becomes light.
Jesus invites us: “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.”