Sermon: “Come to Me”

This sermon was delivered to the people of the First Baptist Church, Valley Mills, Texas, on Sunday, July 5, 2020.

Introductory Remarks

Good morning.

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.

Outline

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:

  1. The Way is Not Plain to Everyone (9)
  2. The Way is Not Taken by All (8)
  3. The Way is a Path That’s Revealed (9)
  4. 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.

Theological Work and Wonder

A Killdeer (Charadrius vociferus) with Nest

In Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, Karl Barth lectures on the existential aspects of theological work, which is firstly distinguished by the disposition of wonder. Barth writes:

The astonishment of the individual carries with it the fact that no one can become and remain a theologian unless he is compelled again and again to be astonished at himself. Last but not least, he must become for himself an enigma and a mystery. (Note bene: the same applies even to those who are taking a minor in theology or who will always remain amateur theologians.) After all, who am I to be a theologian? It does not matter whether I am the best child of the best parents, perhaps having known, like Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15), about the Holy Scriptures from the very time I began to think. It does not matter whether I have the cleverest mind or the most upright heart or the very best of intentions. Who am I to have put such trust in myself as to devote myself even remotely to the task of theology? Who am I to co-operate in this subject, at least potentially and perhaps quite actively, as a minor researcher, thinker, or teacher? Who am I to take up the quest for truth in the service and in the sense of the community, and to take pains to complete this quest? I have put such trust in myself as soon as I touch theology even with my little finger, not to speak of occupying myself with it more or less energetically or perhaps even professionally. And if I have done that, I have without fail become concerned with the new event and the miracle attested to by the Bible. This miracle involves far more than just the young man at Nain or the captain of Capernaum and their companions of whom the Gospels tell; far more than the Israelites’ passage through the Red Sea, the wilderness, and the Jordan; far more than the sun that stood still upon Joshua’s command at Gibeon. I have become involved in the reality of God that is only signaled by all those things. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who reveals himself in his Son through the Holy Spirit, who desired to be the God of man so that man might live as his man. I have become involved in the wonder of this God, together with all its consequences for the world and for each and every man. And whatever, however, and whoever I may be in other respects, I have finally and profoundly become a man made to wonder at himself by this wonder of God. It is another question whether I know what self-wonderment means for me, whether I am ready and able to subordinate my bit of research, thought, and speech to the logic of this wonder (and not in reverse order!). But there can be no question about one fact: I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the living God. This confrontation occurs in even the most timid and untalented attempt to take seriously the subject which I have become involved or to work theologically at all, whether in the field of exegesis, Church history, dogmatics, or ethics.

Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology, p. 61-62

What flows from wonder? Humility. Praise. Joy.

Notice Barth applies dispositions of astonishment and wonder to all who would try their hand and heart and head to the task of theology: “the same applies even to those who are taking a minor in theology or who will always remain amateur theologians.” Whether a theologian is a doctor of the church or a person in the pew, “I find myself confronted by the wondrous reality of the living God.” One and all, together we ask, “Who am I?”

In Barth’s wider corpus, it would seem that to ask “Who am I?” is only possible in response to a prior question, “Who is God?”, a question that cannot be asked apart from revelation. Theology is response. Contemplation of the question, “Who is God?” broadens and expands the possibilities for our answer to the question, “Who am I?” Barth’s wonderment, captured above, is only possible if the answer to “Who is God?” has resulted in the conclusion that the truth about God is something magnificent, expansive, and unimaginably overwhelming, an understanding which is so very small in comparison to its totality that the little that we do grasp is like that of beholding a dewdrop in light of the ocean, or that of a sunbeam in its relationship to the sun.

Barth writes elsewhere that “the God who is the object of evangelical theology is just as lowly as he is exalted. He is exalted precisely in his lowliness.” It is this lowly God who appoints us, human beings, to serve God humbly, and as we serve to exalt that same God rightly, to honor his name as that name which is above all names.

This wonder becomes lost when we mistakenly lose sight of God as God is, and mistakenly exalt human beings (especially theologians!) to a position higher than is fitting for our station as creatures, rather than Creator. The question, “Who am I?”, rightly understood, aligns us with the prophet Isaiah who when found in the presence of God exclaimed, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

After this proclamation, the response of the heavenly host is one of lowliness, atonement, preparation and equipping, and, subequently, of calling:

Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

Isaiah 6:6-7

The next statement from the throne is a summons: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?”

Isaiah responds, “Here am I. Send me!”

This call and response continues to issue forth to each one of us. “Who am I?” “Who is God?” It is this very God who has called this very I to do this very work, with wonder.

The Practice of the Shepherd

In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.

To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.

– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107

This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.

Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.

Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”

How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.

This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”

Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.

This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.