Maturing in our life of faith brings us to a sense of God’s grace. As we realize how vast the resources of energy of God are in our everyday lives, we find that we don’t have to carry the weight of the world’s sins on our shoulders, that our moral sweat isn’t going to make the critical difference in history, but that the difference has already been made by Christ’s blood.Eugene Peterson, The Hallelujah Banquet, p. 76
This sermon was delivered to the people of the First Baptist Church, Valley Mills, Texas, on Sunday, July 5, 2020.
If you would, please open your Bibles to Matthew 11:16-30. We’ll be reading out text in just a moment, and as we do so, I think it would be wise if as we hear these words we would also read these words together, so that we may think carefully about them as God’s people.
As you turn, let me say that it’s good to be with you, and it is an honor that your pastor, John Wheatley, invited me to join you today in worship. John is my friend by way of our shared work at Truett Seminary. John has also always spoken highly of you, this congregation. It is good to be with you this morning.
You may have heard or seen that my job at Truett has a long title: I serve as the Assistant Director of Spiritual Formation at the George W. Truett Theological Seminary. One of my friends asked, “Does that fit on your business card?” What does that mean? It means that I educate, inspire, and assist others in growing to become more like Jesus Christ in their inmost being, so that they might best serve his kingdom and purposes.
John said I could speak this morning about anything that I wanted to. Usually, when someone tells me that, I talk about professional wrestling. But instead, today I thought I’d talk about the work of spiritual formation. At Truett, when we engage with seminarians in our work to “become more like Jesus,” we can only hope that that work is already well underway, having begun in the context of the local church. The local church is the most vital, the most critical, and the most important setting within which people come to see Jesus, know Jesus, trust Jesus, follow Jesus, serve Jesus, and grow to become like Jesus until the day in which we are called home to be with Jesus in eternity.
Never forget that this shared work, as part of this people, in this local congregation, as part of this community, is interwoven and indispensable to the outworking of God’s redemptive purposes in history. God is working right here, among this people within whom Christ dwells. We are part of the body of Christ.
In order to function as the body of Christ we must listen to and heed the Word of God. Let’s hear these words from the Gospel of Matthew 11:16-30.
Reading: Matthew 11:16-30
16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
20 Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
This is God’s Word.
What does our Scripture reading have to teach us today? What is God saying to us, today, in this text?
How does this passage help us to grow in becoming more like Jesus? And how does it call us to change, to respond, to think differently, to feel differently, to speak differently, to act differently, in light of God’s character, God’s person, and God’s grace?
Let’s consider four broad movements found in this passage which we will examine together today:
- The Way is Not Plain to Everyone (9)
- The Way is Not Taken by All (8)
- The Way is a Path That’s Revealed (9)
- The Way is a Person, Who Calls (8)
The Way is Not Plain to Everyone
Imagine if you will for a moment you are the owner of a gas station along a main highway which runs through the center of a fairly well developed town. You’ve lived in the community for years, and you know every curve, bump, and byway like the back of your hand. You’ve been along the main roads and the backroads, the side streets and the alleyways. You’ve seen people come and go, houses built up and torn down, businesses launch and close down. You’ve seen it, and you know the place.
One day a stranger comes into your store and they ask you how to get to the Johnson place. The Johnsons live on the outskirts of town, five turns from your station. You quickly tell the stranger, “Head north, turn right on Maple, drive three quarters of a mile and take a left hand turn on a small, unmarked drive just past a metal sculpture built from old mufflers outside of the pizza place there, then catch FM 1695 eastbound until you pass a barn with a faded Texas flag painted on the rooftop, after which you’ll see CR 529. Turn right there, and another two miles down the way, you’ll come to the Johnson place. The Johnson’s have a green mailbox with a small John Deere tractor on the top, which hides slightly behind an old hackberry tree, so keep your eyes open.”
The stranger may say, “Come again?”
Now, it’s not that they couldn’t get there. It’s not that you didn’t do a good job describing the way. But it is nevertheless true that the more familiar you become with something–with a place, with a way of life, with a manner of speaking, with a set of beliefs or a way of seeing the world–the more you forget what it was like for you to discover these things yourself. It took time, experience. And when a new person comes along, an outsider who doesn’t share the same knowledge and experience, sometimes we assume they should just “get it.”
In our passage today, Jesus doesn’t address people who are trying to get to the Johnson place. Rather, Jesus is addressing people who are trying to determine if he is the Messiah, God’s anointed one, the one who was anticipated and hoped for, the one who would usher in God’s kingdom and bring salvation and deliverance and peace.
If we look at the broader context, we see that Jesus is addressing “the crowd” when we begin our reading, and he is speaking to them specifically about John the Baptist. Jesus identifies John as a prophet, and more than a prophet: the Elijah who was to come, the one who would “prepare the way” for the Messiah.
Nevertheless, there are those in the crowd who have refused to see John as the Messiah’s forerunner and to heed John’s direction, his “pointing the way,” if you will. When Jesus compares this generation to children saying, “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn,” he is saying, this is a generation that cannot be satisfied, a generation that will always find a reason to say, “Nope, not that one.”
Jesus makes this plain for us when he says that John was rejected because he was too rigid, too strict, “neither eating nor drinking.” But when Jesus comes feasting, he is counted as being too loose. Tainted. Wild.
As readers today, and as those who are very familiar with the story of Jesus and where it goes, we think we wouldn’t have made the same mistake. We think, “Yes, we recognize Jesus. But outsiders, those in the crowd, they don’t. Why don’t they get it?”
But the irony here is that Matthew 11 begins with John the Baptist sending a word to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replies, “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
You see insiders and outsiders can get it wrong. They can miss Jesus because they expect the wrong things of Jesus. We can expect the wrong things of Jesus. Rather than seeing Jesus as the Way, they miss it. We miss it. The church, dare I say, has at times missed Jesus when he has been standing here and in our midst. We’ve said, “Nope, not that one.”
Followers of Jesus, myself included, should always be marked by a tremendous humility. We should demonstrate deep knowledge that the Way of Jesus, the Person of Jesus, the invitation of Jesus, is not plain to everyone, and it once wasn’t plain to us. And if it is plain to us–that’s a sign of God’s grace. And we should constantly humble ourselves, seeking after God, saying, “Lord, light my way.”
The Way is Not Taken By All
In addition to the way not being plain to everyone, our text today shows us that the way is not taken by all.
Jesus speaks harsh words, hard words for us to hear today, for we like to think of God as a God of mercy and love rather than as a God of justice and judgment. The truth is God is both. That is the testimony of the Scriptures.
When Jesus says, “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe, Bethsaida! Woe, Capernaum!” we are given a warning. We would not want Jesus to say, “Woe to you, Austin! Woe, Waco! Woe, Woodway (where I live)! Woe, Valley Mills!” No, we do not want that.
Jesus speaks of the miracles performed in these places, the signs and wonders that had been performed in those places testifying to God’s power, to the inbreaking kingdom, and to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. Yet, not all accepted him.
And while we may say, “If I were there, I would have believed,” we cannot be so sure. They saw miracles.
But, we have been given testimony to an even greater miracle. We have heard the witness of those who saw something greater than anything which took place in Chorazin or Bethsaida or Capernaum. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Paul writes:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.
3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance[a]: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas,[b] and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
On the third day, the tomb was empty. Christ is risen. Do we believe in this testimony, and thereby, believe in Christ? If we have not accepted Jesus as the Risen One, we have not accepted his way.
The Way is a Path That’s Revealed
If we have not accepted Jesus, if we have not chosen to walk after him and to follow his way, perhaps it is because we have not yet seen. Earlier I spoke of the humility that should be characteristic of a Christian person. Why should a Christian person be humble? Because salvation is no accomplishment or work of our own. It is an act of God’s grace.
Notice that after Jesus finishes pronouncing woes, he transitions to offering praise. Jesus says, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.”
Jesus then announces that “all things” have been entrusted to him by the Father, and that for those who trust Jesus, they too will know the Father. The Son reveals the Father. The Son, according to Hebrews 1:3, “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” In John 14:9, Jesus tells Philip, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”
Christians worship and proclaim God as Trinity–three persons; one God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit each as unique divine persons, yet as One God. In Jesus Christ, we have been united to this God through the gift of faith. When Jesus says, “No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him,” he is telling us that he is the way to God.
In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In John 14:7, Jesus adds, “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”
The way to God is a path that is revealed. It is revealed by a person: the Son.
The Way is a Person, the Son
If we’ve learned anything today from our constellation of texts, as we have brought other passages of Scripture to bear on our primary reading, we will have seen that Jesus not only reveals the way and leads the way, but he himself is the Way.
Jesus’ great invitation in our passage this morning is this: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”
Those words have provided comfort to many for generations. They have provided comfort to me. Jesus looks upon the crowds, those who surround him, knowing that there are both those who reject him and those who desire to trust him, and he says these words, “Come to me.”
He speaks to the weary and the burdened. He offers rest. He uses an agrarian image, that of the yoke, bringing to our mind an image of the mature, well trained ox being paired together with a young, inexperienced steer. Jesus does not place himself behind the plow, urging us along, or ahead of the plow, showing the way. Rather, he places himself under the yoke, walking with, bearing up, experiencing alongside, and teaching, teaching, always teaching.
Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. He says that he is gentle and humble in heart. Philosopher, theologian, and ordained Baptist preacher Dallas Willard once stated that discipleship to Jesus is “the way of the easy yoke,” not because following Jesus does not involve hardship or sacrifice, but because Jesus’ way truly is best. There is no other person, no other figure in human history, who can put us in touch with reality in such a way that we grow to be fully human, which is what God intended for us prior to the human race’s captivity to sin.
Christ is the only one who can restore us, who can lead us into true rest. In fact, he has done it. Jesus bore our deepest burden and the greatest source of our weariness, the burden of sin, upon the cross, and there he put it to death. He is risen and now reigns, and his invitation still stands: “Come to me.” We are invited into his rest. It is freely given: a grace. We are invited to freely receive it.
The great salvation of Jesus is that not only does he redeem you from sin, not only does he reconcile you to God, but he remakes you, renews you, and reforms you so that you may faithfully serve as a representative of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. He teaches you his way. He is the Way.
In John 17:3, Jesus says, “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me.” That’s the great invitation. Not, “be a better person.” But, “Come to me.” Trust in him. He will give you rest.
Will you do it? Will you come to Jesus?
Let us pray.
In 1963, Thomas Merton published Life and Holiness. The book is a brilliant, succinct encapsulation of the Christian vision with five major sections: 1) Christian Ideals, 2) The Testing of Ideals, 3) Christ, the Way, 4) The Life of Faith, and 5) Growth in Christ. There are passages which address matters of relevance in the 1960s which could have just as well been written today. Such is the timelessness of truth.
From the outset, Merton makes clear that the primary emphasis of the book is grace, “the power and the light of God in us, purifying our hearts, transforming us in Christ, making us true sons of God, enabling us to act in the world as his instruments for the good of all men and for his glory.” Merton also stresses “the nature of work and its place in the Christian life” and how “one’s daily work is an important element in the spiritual life.” Merton well understood that a life of holiness is one that encompasses human activity in every sphere, not only what which we traditionally associate with the sacred.
I appreciate the ways in which Merton exhorts the reader to strive after holiness, or growth in grace. But he balances that exhortation with a reminder that God is the catalyst, the carrier, and the one who grants completion to that work. Merton writes, “If we are called by God to holiness of life, and if holiness of life is beyond our natural power to achieve (which it certainly is) then it follows that God himself must give us the light, the strength, and the courage to fulfill the task he requires of us. He will certainly give us the grace we need. If we do not become saints it is because we do not avail ourselves of his gift.”
This notion of sainthood is one which Merton addresses directly. It is a common temptation to elevate our exemplars to heights which we believe are beyond our reach. Merton says it well:
The popular idea of a ‘saint’ is, of course, quite naturally based on the sanctity which is presented for our veneration, in heroic men and women, by the Church. There is nothing surprising in the fact that saints quickly become stereotyped in the mind of the average Christian, and everyone, on reflection, will easily admit that the stereotype tends to be unreal. The conventions of hagiography have usually accentuated the unreality of the picture, and pious art has, in most cases, successfully completed the work. In this way, the Christian who devotes himself to the pursuit of holiness unconsciously tends to reproduce in himself some features of the popular stereotyped image. Or rather, since it is fortunately difficult to succeed in this enterprise, he imagines himself in some sense obliged to follow the pattern, as if it were really a model proposed for his imitation by the Church herself, instead of a purely conventional and popular caricature of a mysterious reality–the Christlikeness of the saints.
Merton sees that our efforts to imitate these “plaster” saints is ultimately silly. Rather, God is calling us to become most deeply ourselves in Christ. He writes, “It is the strict truth, and until we realize that before a man can become a saint he must first of all be a man in all the humanity and fragility of man’s actual condition, we will never be able to understand the meaning of the word ‘saint.'” Merton points to Jesus, who “was himself the most deeply and perfectly human being who ever lived on the face of the earth. We must remember that human nature was, in him, quite perfect, and at the same time completely like our own frail and suffering nature in all things except sin. Now what is ‘supernatural’ if not the economy of salvation in and through the Incarnate Word?”
By grace God not only conforms us to the image and likeness of Christ, but while doing so mends and remakes us in the divine image, as God intended for us to be, free from sin, and freed to live for the glory of God.
One of the matters that keeps us from pursuing this kind of life is distraction. In a paragraph that has held up, Merton writes, “We must reflect more deeply than we do on the effect of modern technological life upon the emotional and instinctual development of man. It is quite possible that the person whose life is divided between tending a machine and watching TV is sooner or later going to suffer a radical deprivation in his nature and humanity.” Hello, Twitter. This observation still rings true.
What, ultimately then, is a saint? Merton states:
The true saint is not one who has become convinced that he himself is holy, but one who is overwhelmed by the realization that God, and God alone, is holy. He is so awestruck with the reality of the divine holiness that he begins to see it everywhere. Eventually, he may be able to see it in himself too: but he will see it there last of all, because in himself he will continue to experience the nothingness, the pseudo reality of egoism and sin. Yet even in the darkness of our disposition to evil shines the presence and the mercy of the Saviour.
In my pastoral experience, those furthest down the road to sanctification are the least able to perceive it. They are too busy living a life of holiness, living a life that is focused upon God’s will and work. It is others in the fellowship who note those who shine like stars in the darkness (Philippians 2:15), who most evidence they have been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). They whisper, maybe with awe, “That person is a saint.”
Any person who has believed on and in Jesus Christ, who has placed their faith in him, is counted among the company of the saints. A saint is not someone who has arrived, but someone who is on the way. The further they have traveled, the more brightly they shine. Sainthood is the calling of every Christian, not as a static reality, but as a dynamic relationship with the Savior who sanctifies.
What is our next step? Where do we begin? The answer remains, as Jesus said so long ago, “Come, follow me.”
Nearby in Chapel Hill, Ben Williams looked out over the empty pews of Christ United Methodist Church on Sunday and prepared to lead worship, this time into a camera. In living rooms across town, congregants followed along with a liturgy he had sent out.
Maybe, he hoped, by filming the service experience in the sanctuary, complete with music, worship leaders might help normalize things in the midst of things that are not normal. The worship pastor had even written a “Hymn for Handwashing,” to the tune of “Amazing Grace”:
“Amazing soap! How sweet the smell, that keeps our hands germ free! Please wash your hands, and dry them, too, that we might healthy be.”
“It will feel somewhat strange, right?” Mr. Williams said. “What we’ve said is, you are still with us.”
– Elizabeth Dias in The New York Times, “A Sunday Without Church: In Crisis, a Nation Asks, ‘What is Community?’”
Sunday did not pass us by without church. The church chose not to gather corporately in their designated buildings for services of worship and witness. The buildings are important. The liturgy is important. Face to face gathering is important. But the church is a spiritual body, called together in Christ and united in the Holy Spirit.
The nation could ask, “What is a Church?” For answers, the church will need to give witness to the nature of community, thinking carefully about the spiritual community God has constituted it to be, testifying to Christ, telling the gospel story, keeping eyes open for the needs of the neighbor, demonstrating love, caring for those who are ill and home bound, sharing resources, praying, offering spiritual leadership within households, showing mercy, seeking justice, and deepening faith in God. Washing hands should be done–that’s wisdom. We can even sing songs about it. But grace has even greater cleansing power, and is the necessary fuel the church will need in order to be faithful to her God-given mission in the world.
Times of crisis serve as times of testing, revealing character, raising critical questions, and creating occasions for radical displays of creativity, innovation, and the depths of the human spirit. Seize the opportunity. Rise to the challenge. And don’t miss the moment. We’re faced with a problem. If you, like me, are part of the church, let’s work at solutions, dispel darkness, and lift high the light of Christ.
This is a beautiful song, telling a simple story, allowing much room for imagination. Who is the traveler? Where are they going? Who is the father, mother, and child?
Do we seek the welfare of the stranger? Asking for God’s mercy upon those we do not know, that we only perceive from far away, perhaps only knowing that they are road-weary and in need of rest?
You could apply the imagery in this song to many scenarios, maybe even this one. There are others, not as politically charged, but nonetheless suitable, for wherever we see the stranger traveling the road, we must always remember mercy and never forget that we also were once without a home, without rest, until God chose to grant an everlasting mercy, rest, and hospitality to us.