Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
The texts this week got me thinking about the story of Noah. Jesus has this strange accusation against the people who oppose him: they’re like children mocking one another at play. They don’t want to play, they don’t want to mourn; the only thing they want is to refuse one another. You might have experienced this at breakfast time: “Do you want Cheerios?” “I hate Cheerios.” "Do you want pancakes?” “No.” “What do you want?” “I want to play.” Jesus seems to be mocking the people for not knowing what they should even be looking for: John the Baptist comes, and they make fun of him for fasting, and Jesus comes eating and drinking and they call him a glutton and a drunk. “What do you want? You don't even know what you want.” When you don’t know what you want, you start to get grabby, depressed, confused. You take whatever comes, but you’re never happy. You become a person wandering in the dark: you have to go somewhere, but you don’t know where or care, and so you just lurch from one thing to the next.
A similar thing is happening here, in this Gospel. The people lie in darkness, denying the prophets and the messiah. They do not know what they have experienced as God works in the world. Paul talks a bit about the psychology of the human spirit today—I do not do the thing I want, but the thing I do not want, that is the thing I do. He’s speaking of the helplessness of human beings in the face of sin. It’s the helplessness of wandering in the dark, feeling your way without knowing where you are going or why. We can feel compulsion running under our texts today, the compulsion of ignorance and the compulsion of a cultured and cynical disbelief, unable to see the work of God before our very eyes. I think this is a central conviction of the Bible—that human beings intuit God, but when God appears or makes himself known, we say, “No, no, that can’t be. Nobody thinks that. It must be foolishness. Nothing can free us from our bounds and our bonds, nothing can make us different.”
Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the past century’s great theologians once quipped, “Original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” He later regretted his emphasis on original sin, not because he thought he was wrong, but because he thought it freaked people out. They didn’t want to hear about such a doctrine and its pessimistic view of humanity. People wanted to believe in progress, in the perfectibility of human beings through culture and education and enlightened social programs. Niebuhr wanted all these things too, but he didn’t think they would make people less inclined to evil. In his view, no matter how enlightened a worldview we possess, no matter how moral our politics, we are in for disaster if we forget that before the power of sin we are helpless. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” cries Paul. We are wise enough to know we are dying and wise enough to know we cannot free ourselves. But when the Messiah comes, we complain that he parties too much, or picked the wrong disciples.
We are trapped like flies in honey—to politics, to celebrity gossip, to whatever our souls have inclined to follow. In our morass, we have discovered others who have given themselves over, in hope, in some way of escape. We connect, we create. But all these things, eventually, give way to the same end—this body of death, as Paul calls it. But the good news today is that we are not the only ones who have connected. God has connected with us, even in the darkness of this world. We may not get it the first time, or the third time, or the hundredth time, but God has connected with us in Christ Jesus, who knows us completely and wants us to know him. Jesus has come to connect to the drunk and the tax collector—he has come for all of us lost people, groping around in the dark. Sin is no obstacle to God. God frees us from it.
What do we call a light in the darkness? If we truly are searching around like helpless bugs, what would it mean for us to suddenly see and know and understand? What would it mean for us to know what we wanted—to actually want something that really and truly gives life? I think we call this grace: it is grace because we didn’t expect it, or predict it, or earn it. It is a gift, and it uncovers wonders.
Jesus begins with an exasperated condemnation of the people, but he ends with an invitation: “Come to me, all you carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” I think most are familiar with that promise, even if we mistake thinking that Christ’s light burden is no burden at all. Christ is talking about the cross, I think, and the yoke of discipleship. It is the path from death to life, as Paul would say, and therefore is light and gets easier as you carry it. But it is still a path to walk and a burden to bear, albeit with Christ as your guide. But lost in this passage sometimes is also Christ’s promise of knowledge: the promise that the ones who know the Son will know the Father, and the promise that the Father will reveal to the children knowledge.
I may have set this up in too oppositional of a fashion, and I’m a little worried that I’m sounding like a Gnostic: light and darkness, ignorance and knowledge. And yet these are truly concerns of the Gospel. But the message of Christ is not esoteric ritualism, or secret knowledge that only adepts can attain, or the story of an infinite, Star Wars-like battle between light and dark. Darkness is only a problem for us, not for God. But in God’s commitment to us in Christ, we receive the promises of God to save us from our darkness. We can know it surely and with certainty: God loves us. It is a light in our darkness.
If you’re like me, you look at your life sometimes, and you are filled with regret. What would have happened if I had majored in the right thing in college? What if I really had followed my heart? What if I hadn’t followed my heart and instead took the steady job that would have paid the bills all this time? Or you look at your life and you are filled with fear: will I have health insurance next year? If I do, will I be able to afford anything? Will there still be a ‘here’? And what can I do about all these things?
The easy yoke of Christ is not the accomplishment of a political cause, but instead valuing the dignity and goodness of every person for their own, God-created sake, and for the sake of the one who gave himself for them, Jesus Christ. It is the way of choosing to make communities, churches, that exist to proclaim the knowledge of God and the message of God’s love in Christ Jesus for this whole world. And the yoke is God’s compulsion to do this whether the times seems good or not.
Never give up on God’s love. Never doubt that the light of Christ shines not just through the darkness of our own lives, but down the tunnel of the centuries. Nothing is so futile that God cannot bring forth something beautiful from it. Nothing is so far gone that God cannot renew it. Even this world, that God saw fit to flood, God also saved. There is good news—even when we mock him, Christ saves. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack