Sunday 6 July 2008

Children & Yokes

1. Why does Jesus so often use children to illustrate his teaching?

Perhaps it’s because he knows what so many preachers forget, including me, that the best way to make your point stick is to relate it to everyday experience. And what’s more part of our everyday experience than the doings and sayings of children?

Or perhaps it’s because the open-minded, trustful innocence of a child has something special to teach us.

Or perhaps it is just because he loves children.

Whatever the reason, the responses of children are an obvious link between the two short passages we’ve just heard from St Matthew’s gospel – I suppose that’s why the good compilers of the Lectionary put them together, although by doing so they've rather lost their contexts. Let us look at them more closely, to see what they tell us.

2. In the 1st passage (Mat 11:16-19) Jesus evokes the image of children in the street who can’t agree what game to play.

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn says Jesus. You might hear something very similar on a street today:

‘Lets play weddings’ say one lot of kids;
‘Lets not’ say another lot, ‘Lets play funerals’;
‘No, we don’t want to play funerals’ say the first lot, ‘We want to play weddings!’

Jesus applies this image of squabbling children to the people of his generation. One lot won’t listen to what John the Baptist says because he is too puritan; ‘He has a demon’ they say. Another lot won’t listen to the Son of Man – Jesus of course, because he is too lax; ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ You can really feel Jesus’s exasperation, can’t you?

But what is going on here? To get to the bottom of it, I think we have to look at the context of Jesus’s words in Matthew’s text.

Matthew has just told us that Jesus’s cousin John, whom Herod had imprisoned and
would later execute, had sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question, ‘Are you the one who is to come?’ – In other words, are you the Messiah? And Jesus has answered, in a coded but unmistakable way, that he is: he says, ‘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.’ These were the signs by which Jews believed the Messiah would be recognised, based on Isaiah’s prophesy.

The Jews believed then, as many still do, that before the Messiah came, Elijah would return to herald his coming. But if Jesus is the Messiah, where is Elijah? Jesus then addresses the crowd, saying that John is more than just a prophet; John ‘is Elijah who is to come. Let anyone with ears listen!’

So Matthew has just told us that Jesus saw John as the new Elijah, heralding himself as the Messiah. Their teaching styles may be different, but John and Jesus’s teaching go together like a hand in a glove. There is no reason to take one side and rubbish the other! This is why Jesus is so exasperated with the squabbling factions.

But Jesus’s exasperation is tempered by his certainty that this will not derail God’s plan, which will ultimately be successful. He finishes by saying ‘Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.’ Wisdom in the Hebrew Scriptures is seen as emanating from God, created by God before he created the world in the Genesis story. Wisdom is personified in the Book of Proverbs as a woman teaching a simple youth. And in future centuries this idea was to be developed in the Eastern Church into the idea of Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, to whom Emperor Justinian dedicated his great church in Constantinople.

2. I think that in our own generation there’s a great deal we can learn from Jesus’s words too.

Take our Anglican Communion. You’ve no doubt heard reports, as I have, about the increasingly bitter divisions in it. We have a self-styled Orthodox party struggling for power in the Communion with a so-called Liberal party. Both parties are vying for the support of everyone else, while threatening to leave or to expel the others. On the surface the issue is whether homosexual behaviour is sinful, but underlying this are very different opinions on how literally or not to interpret scripture. It’s all rather confusing and disturbing, isn’t it! At least, I find it so.

But isn’t the whole hubbub rather like Jesus’s squabbling children? I don’t think we should allow their arguments to disturb our own faith. We should continue prayerfully to follow Jesus in the way he calls us, recognising that he may call others differently. They are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. I for one intend to maintain Christian fellowship with all who look to Jesus, whatever disagreements I may have with them. Like Jesus, we can be certain that this squabbling cannot derail God’s plan. Perhaps the arguments will ultimately strengthen our churches, no matter how painful we may find the dissension now. Let us trust, like Jesus, that God’s Wisdom will be vindicated!

And I suggest that whenever we find ourselves drawn into disagreements with others, in our church, in our community, or anywhere else, we should reflect on these words of Jesus. Could we be exasperating our Lord by behaving like squabbling children? Are those we disagree with, like us, trying honestly to do God’s work? If so, perhaps we should try harder in love and fellowship to find common ground. We should be reassured by Jesus’s words: whatever the outcome, God’s wisdom will be vindicated!

I've been told by one dear to me that I should have finished the sermon here - she's right! There are two sermons in this one address, and one would have been enough! So please feel free to come back and read the second one later!

4. Turning to the 2nd passage (Mat 11:25-30), Jesus starts by publicly thanking his loving-father God.

‘I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth’, he says, ‘because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.’ The child theme again!

Jesus is surely speaking from experience: the experience that the wise and intelligent, the rabbis, the intellectuals, reject him, while plain ordinary folk accept him. I don’t think Jesus is condemning those who are clever – rather he is condemning those who are puffed up with intellectual pride. We must have the open-minded, trustful innocence of a child to believe that Jesus is who he claims to be.

Jesus continues, making the claim that is the centre of the Christian faith, ‘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.’ What Jesus is saying is this: if you want to know what God is like, look at me! As Christians we believe that in Jesus we see what God is like. But surely we can only see it if we are as open-minded and trustful as children. Children really do have much to teach us!

Jesus then says the ‘comfortable words’ that we used to hear every Sunday in the old traditional language Communion service: they are comfortable in the sense that they give us comfort. ‘Come unto me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.’ And he continues, ‘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.’

We Irish tend to use the word yoke these days for something whose name we’ve forgotten, or we are too lazy to dredge from our memory. Unless we work with draught animals we probably know very little about real yokes – those wooden bars that go over the shoulders of men or animals to allow them to carry or pull heavy loads safely. But Jesus’s audience would have been very familiar with yokes. And Jesus himself was quite likely an expert in yokes. He probably made them as a youth in his father Joseph’s carpenter’s shop. They would have been bespoke – the carpenter would no doubt take measurements of the man or animal, trim the wood, and fit it carefully, making fine adjustments until it fitted just right, like a good tailor. Perhaps the carpenter’s shop in Nazareth had a sign over the door saying something like ‘Buy my yokes - they fit well!’

What Jesus is saying to his audience, echoing down to us over the millennia, is this. ‘My way, the life I show you, is not a burden to cause you pain; your task is made to measure to fit you’. Whatever God sends us is made to fit our needs and our abilities perfectly. It is not that life’s burdens are easy to carry, but God lays them on us in love, they are meant to be carried in love following Jesus’s example, and love makes even the heaviest burden light.

5. So to conclude

Let us pray that we may not exasperate our Lord Jesus Christ by unnecessary squabbling, like the people of his generation, but rather may we draw strength from Jesus’s certainty that God’s wisdom will be vindicated in the end.

And let us pray that we may be as open-minded and trustful as children, so that we may see God in Jesus, so that we may take up his yoke of love, and so that we may find rest for our souls.

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