I want you to imagine this morning, what it might be like (willing suspension of disbelief here)—imagine what it would be like if we pressed a button back there at the sound board and played a recording of the words of Jesus. Now not someone else reading the words of Jesus. Imagine hearing Jesus. the words of the word of God made flesh. Imagine how intently you would listen.
Imagine the authority you would expect to hear in his voice. Imagine the love. Must have been, we imagine, quite a voice. The disciples, in fact, in the early days of the church, still flush with the experience of preaching to thousands who believed, devised a p.r. campaign centered around the catch phrase, “When Jesus speaks, people listen.” Didn’t work. Got to give them credit for trying. Jesus would have been the first to point out though, the difference between those who listen and those who hear. He was always quick to note all those who had ears but didn’t hear.
“But to what will I compare this generation?” That generation? and the next and the next and all and ours. Yes. “The generations—every generation—we are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’”
Jesus goes on to immediately draw a comparison between John the Baptist and himself, noting that John wore itchy camel hair and ate crickets and honey and not much else and people said of him that he had a demon. Then the Son of Man came and went to parties and loved going out to dinner and turned water to wine at weddings, and people said of him, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” And so we tend to correlate the more austere John ranting about repentance with the children wailing and with mourning, and that wild man Jesus laughing and proclaiming love and grace with the children playing flutes and dancing. We tend to think not just of two very different styles of ministry, but two different messages.
Now is it a matter of one style being accepted and the other rejected? Is this about the superiority of Jesus’ message over John’s? Or is this perhaps not a comparison rating at all? Is this rather Jesus saying, “God approaches in so many ways—so many different ways, and yet you refuse each initiative. You wouldn’t listen to John; you didn’t respond to me; you wouldn’t play. We offered you the opportunities, but you refused.” Would we hear a sadness—an exasperation in Jesus’ voice? “There just ain’t no winning with y’all! Because maybe it’s really not that you have problems with John because of this and problems with me because of that—it’s really not that we somehow don’t meet your expectations of someone from God, but that you really just don’t want God. You always find some reason to object to the presence of God with you—the expectations of God. We’re just an excuse you use. Right?”
Is that it? Yes…. and no! Because there’s something else to consider here. We tend to say each generation is defined by those who do not respond—not to John or to Jesus—not to the initiative of God. But reading carefully, the children are the ones initiating the grace of God within the experience of God’s children and those who reject that initiative, right? John and Jesus are both children of God—as were the prophets before them—as were the righteous and some (a few) of the kings, the judges, the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith. There have always been those living the stories of God, and always been those who listen to those stories and then reject them—or hear them and embrace them.
So when Jesus says “Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” whose deeds are we talking about? Are we talking about Jesus’ deeds? Or John’s? Jesus and John’s? What about ours? And what deeds are we talking about? Jesus goes right on to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done. Are those the deeds we’re talking about? No, we’re not talking about … or we’re not just talking about Jesus’ deeds of power. Because we’re not talking just about deeds of initiative but also deeds of response. Wisdom notes both who’s playing music and who’s dancing—who wails and who mourns. It’s like the advice offered in 1 John—test the spirits. You got to know which ones are from God (1 John 4:1). Wisdom tells you what music and what dancing is of God—what wailing and what mourning is divine. Wisdom tells you not to assume that it’s only the voices that meet your expectations of God.
“Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you.’”
Now on the one hand, that couldn’t be any more clear. How do you respond to Jesus? If you don’t repent, you’re as bad as the worst we know—even if you’re Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum—all right there within a few miles of each other on the north end of the Sea of Galilee. Now we’re talking Jesus’ stomping ground. In Mark’s gospel, Capernaum is identified as Jesus’ home (Mark 2:15). This is the setting for the sermon on the mount, the call of the disciples, so many of the teachings and the stories and the miracles. Capernaum is also where Jesus encountered the centurion back in Matthew 8 and was amazed and said, “Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (Matthew 8:10). And in the region of Tyre and Sidon, later in Matthew 15, a Canaanite woman will challenge Jesus, and he will say, “Woman, great is your faith” (Matthew 15:28)—which might make us remember that back before God destroyed Sodom in Genesis 19, in Genesis 18, God, already planning to destroy Sodom wondered whether to hide what was about to happen from Abraham, but decided not to because God chose him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19). Abraham subsequently confronted God, “What if there are good people in Sodom? Would you destroy the good along with the bad? Far be it from you to do such a thing.” And God agreed. “I will not destroy Sodom for the sake of the good within it” (Genesis 18:23-32). Ever noticed that when God did destroy Sodom, it was when Abraham wasn’t looking (Genesis 19:27)? Not sure what to do with that, but surely it can’t be ignored!
And where is this subtle truth not true? Everywhere, the sound of the flute resounds—even in Sidon and Tyre and Sodom—as do the wails of grief and suffering—even in Jesus own hometown. And everywhere, people respond in faith. And yet nowhere does everyone respond in faith. Jesus seems to be clearly dividing and contrasting. And yet, I’m suggesting that every comparison, every division every contrast begins to break down. There is no us and them. Is that what Jesus is saying?
“At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’”
It continues. Those one might expect to understand don’t. And the inverse is also true. Those you wouldn’t expect to get it, do! Don’t be too quick to assume that the ways of God are clear to you—that your breakdown into what is of God and what isn’t is absolutely clearcut. For the word of God will emerge where you don’t expect it—in ways you don’t expect it. And it will be heard by those you don’t expect to hear it—in ways you don’t expect it to be heard. And it will not be heard by those you would expect to hear it—which might include yourself! And is to be heard in the austere and the angry—in the call to repentance and the angry rejection of what is as in celebrations of joy and wonder, love and grace.
It makes me think of that almost embarrassing, transparent honesty of children—who observe the dramatic birth markings on someone’s face and loudly ask, “Why does she look like that?” “Why is she using a cane?” “Are we going over there by the bald guy … the fat man …the woman with the funny hat?” I can’t tell you how often I’ll be talking to someone in front of Rodgers Forge Elementary school and Sydney or Audra will pipe up, “Who’s that?” And all I want to be able to say is, “Would you hush! I don’t remember his name and I really don’t need you drawing attention to that fact!” The emperor has no clothes. Wisdom stands in the marketplace and shouts out, “Hey! Don’t you see God there and there and there—even if you don’t expect to? And God’s nowhere to be seen there and there and there—even if you do expect God there.” And wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
“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.”
Again sounds pretty straightforward—though it does sound more like the high theology of John’s gospel than anything else in the synoptics. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11). Yet again, it’s shot through with contradiction. No one knows the Son? Here amidst family and disciples, no one knows Jesus? And no one knows the Father except the Son? What about the whole tradition of Israel? Well no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him? Which is everyone, right? It’s just that not everyone sees what’s revealed.
Actually the closer tie is to wisdom literature and the traditional affirmation that only wisdom knows God and only God knows wisdom. And wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
So while we do hear words of specific introduction: “No one knows God except me so listen to me,” We also hear “Would you please open your eyes! Would you please unplug your ears! There is so much of God to see and so much of God to hear.” And what we need is that peculiar wisdom of children in the marketplace loudly asking, “Hey! Isn’t that God? Isn’t that not God?” But we flinch in embarrassment, “Would you hush!”
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, (come to me you whose heads hurt) 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.”
Here we go again. And what’s up with that? We know Jesus’ yoke and we know his burden. We know it led him to Jerusalem—to confrontation—to rejection and betrayal—to the cross—to his death. Easy? Light? It’s not so clearcut. Somehow amidst even the wailing, there’s that flute. And yet listening to the flute, we can’t ever deny the grief.
I was so impressed when I recently wandered into Audra’s room upstairs to find her bed all made up. No small feat that. A double bed pushed into one of the corners of her room. And I came down the steps in progressive praise of her accomplishment. “You did that all by yourself?” “What?” “Made your own bed?” “Yes.” “Without any help?” “Nope.” “You did a great job!” “Thanks.”
Downstairs, I then said, “Now you know what this means, right?” “What?” “Now that you can do it, I’ll expect you to do it.” There was a pause, then came Sydney’s quiet comment, “And that’s not a good thing.”
Expectation constitutes both celebration and burden. That’s what I thought our passage was about going in. And that’s still true. But underlying that, I think, is the question, why Are you not impressed all the time? Why do you not marvel and wonder all the time? Why do you divide your experience into the mundane and the marvelous and why is so much more of it mundane? Don’t you hear the flute? Don’t you feel the tears? It’s not that it’s always happy, but don’t you hear the depths of life always? Everywhere? In everyone?
Yesterday, we gathered in Frederick to have a family picture taken: Mom and Dad, my sister and her family, my brother and his wife, us. It was to have happened this summer in a planned getaway to celebrate Mom and Dad’s 50 years of marriage, but Mom was having radiation treatment. And Dad’s having radiation treatments now. And even so, Lauren was sick and she and Doug had to leave early, and David and Ruthy are on their way to Houston, of all places, but we gathered as family at the studio and were photographed and then we gathered as family around two tables at Brewers Alley for lunch and there was much floating between the tables, dodging waiters, and much shuffling of chairs from our tables and other tables into various configurations for conversation. And so many memories and so many connections—so many hopes and plans—so many stories to catch up on—so much love. And didn’t our hearts burn within us? In the wonder of the depths of life, God waits for us, in the dancing and in the wailing—in the tears and in the music.
I hope you heard three things this morning: (1) we regularly miss God with us—maybe because of our expectations of where we should find God, maybe because we resist God with us—because we don’t really want to see and hear God in the midst of our living. But hey! Look! It’s God. (2) It’s not a good thing to miss God with us. It’s a very bad thing. When we miss God, we miss more than we can know, but (3) if we hear God—when we hear God (even after missing God), we hear grace. The yoke is there, but the truth of it is easy. There is burden, but the deep truth of it is light.
Now I didn’t have a joke, but I did have three points, so I’d like to close with a poem— words of grace and truth by e.e. cummings:
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
[http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/C/cummingsee/ithankYouGod.htm. Heike shared with me a choral rendition of the poem composed by Eric Whitacre you can hear at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u94zGAy0YMM]
Hey look! It’s God!