Posted on Jul 09, 2017 by Pastor Dave Whetter
Compared to the past several weeks, as our gospel story begins today, everything has changed. Jesus has finished instructing the twelve disciples (Matthew 11:1) and he has now moved on. He is traveling around again to various cities and towns, proclaiming his message of repentance, for “the kingdom of God has come near” (Matthew 4:17). While Jesus continued on, John, while in prison, had heard about him and sends some of his followers to see if Jesus is the Messiah (11:2-6). And in response, Jesus tells John’s disciples to let John know that God’s work is being done as it was foretold.
But this question of John’s has raised a real issue for Jesus; that is, dealing with the people’s perceptions of God and who God really is. You see, Jesus knows that whether or not what we perceive is real, we will act as though it is and how we perceive God will determine how we are the hands and feet of God in this world. As Jesus noted in our story today, when John the Baptist came along he didn’t conform to what the people thought he should be like. He was too reclusive, too strict, a loner, and way too serious. He should have eaten more and drank more with the people. Then Jesus came along and he was too much the opposite. He drank and ate too much, and to make it worse, he did so with the wrong kind of people. Neither of these men could have been from God, could they?
One scholar calls this the “Goldilocks syndrome.” John (and the God John represents) is just too severe, while Jesus (and the God he represents) is just too accepting. So, like Goldilocks, we prefer to perceive our God to be just right, which basically means we prefer to perceive our God as being just like us.
But there is a problem with our perception of God, and that is, God isn’t just like us. God wasn’t made in our image. In fact, just the opposite, we were made in God’s image. Jesus says we are like children who want our God to play the way we want God to play. If we had our way, we’d prefer God not threaten us with the consequences of our actions. We’d prefer our God not challenge us to change or ask us to do much. And, we would much prefer that God just let us be.
But if this perception of God was reality, then salvation would not be ours. We would be doomed and we would have a God that did not love us. But God does love us, and like any good parent, God refuses to let us be, and so as God had always done, God came to God’s people again, first in John, then even more fully in Jesus.
Now, it’s not bad to have images and perceptions of God; after all, we’re human and we need those images to help us. But if we use those images and perceptions to build walls around our lives, then we will never come to know the real God that is in the world and who desires to be with us. And so, to shake us up and to open our eyes, God often shows up where we least expect God to be in order to call what we thought we knew for sure into question, in order to surprise us by being so different from what we expected and yet precisely what we need.
This is why Jesus gave thanks that God had revealed all this, and even God’s own self, not to the wise but to infants, because that alone surprises us, makes us think twice, and it challenges our notions of not only God, but of who we are. We are but infants seeking to know our parent. And then, Jesus offers the crowds listening to him, and us, an incredible gift. He offers a new picture of God for us to envision. Jesus says, God is the one who bears our burdens. God is the one who shows up in our need. God is the one who comes alongside of us and is willing to be like us so that we might know God and God’s ways. The cross is that image that reminds us of this today, isn’t it? The cross reminds us that God is willing to embrace all of our life, even our sin. God is even willing to embrace death, in Jesus, to demonstrate his profound love and commitment, love and commitment that will not be deterred…by anything. In the cross we discover a God who promises to always be with us, in both good times and bad. In Jesus, we encounter a God that desires to yoke himself to us, so that we will never be alone.
But, even knowing this, even knowing our God lives in us, we struggle, don’t we? I mean, to be honest, instead of a God that promises to be with us, we’d much prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than helps us cope with them, right? We’d much prefer a God who would eliminate challenges rather than equip us for them, and who vanquishes our opponents rather than enables us to make peace with them. Again, this is probably not the God we want, but it is the God we need, a God who is always with us.
Yes, just as we have heard Jesus explain the past several weeks, today, once again, Jesus is still talking about what it means to be a disciple. When Jesus 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; …” (11:28-30), he isn’t saying make sure you take care of yourself, but rather he is reminding us that God will always shows up where we least expect God to be: in a man like John the Baptist, in the need of our neighbor, in the person that doesn’t look anything like you. God shows up in the people who believe and think and act differently than we do and, just as importantly, than we think they should. And that in all these circumstances, our call is the same: to care for them, to meet them where they are, to accept them as we are able.
It’s not easy work. But as we undertake this kind of discipleship, we know God, in Jesus, is already there. God is already waiting for us, encouraging us, forgiving us, bearing us. That is what makes our burden light and the yoke not just easy but joyful.
Tomorrow morning, 79 youth and 29 adults will leave on our annual summer mission trip. This year it is a mystery trip. That is, none of them, with the exception of very few people, know where they are going or what they will be doing. These 108 people represent five congregations: Salem, Holy Cross, Good Shepherd, and Atonement, and All Peoples Church from Milwaukee. Yes, it might come as a surprise to those going on the trip, some of the youth where our kids served last year will be joining you on this mystery trip. Last year both our youth and the youth from All Peoples discovered God in each other, and this year, together, these two groups will once again discover God in the people and the places that they will go and serve. And, for those of you going, the work you will be doing might be hard, physically, mentally, and spiritually, but know this, you go yoked to a God that loves you so much that He will be with you as you travel, She will be waiting for you when you arrive, and that same God is with those you will go to meet and serve.
As you travel and serve this week, know that this faith community will be praying for you, know that four other faith communities are praying for you, and know that whatever mysteries are revealed to you that God will show up where you least expect and in the most unlikely of places. Amen.