Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
What does the word “rest” mean to you? My pets are very good at resting. My dog and my cat are comfortable enough in my home and with one another that they can close their eyes in one another’s presence and completely relax, safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen to them. My dog will sometimes even lie on his back with his legs in the air—that is how safe and secure he feels. Until, that is, the noise of people shooting off firecrackers in the neighborhood scares the dog, and he goes and hides in the kitchen, which is narrow and enclosed on three sides. When the dog gets scared, I stroke him and tell him everything will be okay, and eventually he settles down again and rests, at peace once more.
This is a little bit like what Jesus is teaching us today about coming to him, learning from him, and finding rest for our souls. Today the lectionary chops up the eleventh chapter of Matthew, so it’s hard to understand what’s going on unless we look at the whole chapter. So, briefly: At the beginning of Matthew 11, which we hear in the Advent season, we find John the Baptist in prison, hearing about the things that Jesus was doing, and doubting whether Jesus was really the one he was expecting and that he had preached about. Jesus sends John’s messengers back to John with the answer, “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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Jesus then asks the crowds what they were expecting to see when they had gone out to see John the Baptist, and tells them that John was a prophet, God’s messenger prophesied by Malachi, and Elijah returned. Then Jesus goes into the first part of today’s reading, when he compares this generation to children complaining to one another. The next part of Jesus’ teaching, the lectionary skips, because it is Jesus pronouncing various woes on cities that had heard and seen him, but did not believe. Finally, we get to the last part of today’s reading, where Jesus thanks God the Father and invites all to come to him and rest.
The general theme of this chapter, then, is Jesus addressing the question of who he is and why people won’t believe in him, even though they have heard and seen the evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who is to come, the Son of God. But if you notice, Jesus doesn’t answer the why question, he simply names the characteristics of those who believe in him and those who don’t. He thanks God the Father that he has “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent” and has “revealed them to infants”. In other words, those who think themselves wise and intelligent are the ones who, like the children in the marketplace, find something to criticize about each of God’s messengers—like John the Baptist and Jesus—and believe that neither one has anything to do with God because these two don’t meet their expectations of what God would do in the world. Those who believe in Jesus are the ones who, like infants, do not think that they know better than God and trust that God is at work in Jesus based on what they hear Jesus saying and what they see him doing.
This is definitely a warning to me. I love learning new things. I think that’s one reason why I’ve embraced the Internet—if I don’t know the answer to a question, I Google it. Sometimes I wonder what in the world I ever did before the Internet became what it now is. My mother is convinced that I am going to be a perpetual student, and I think that she will not be surprised if, one day, I announce that I am going back to school for another degree. While I have no current plans, I have learned never to say “never”. But to be told by Jesus in today’s lesson that the Father has chosen to hide these things from the “wise and the intelligent” makes me nervous. Is all that education that I have received been for nothing? Does God not want me to think for myself? For me, this is simply not possible.
Thankfully, I don’t think this is what Jesus is saying. I think that Jesus is saying that it’s okay to have that education, but when all of that accumulated wisdom and intelligence makes you think you’ve got God figured out, this is when we have a problem. Today’s teaching tells me that God comes to all people—and all means all–and it teaches me to listen to each person’s experience of God without critiquing that experience. It reminds me that God may very well choose to reveal himself to me through another person’s interpretation or experience of God, in the process shaming all of the wisdom that I think I have. It reminds me that sometimes I can take a break from all of the striving after wisdom and knowledge that I do, and simply be a child of God. And that in itself is a wisdom sent from God: the wisdom to know when to rest from all of our striving and to simply be in God’s presence.
And this is how Jesus ends his teaching today—by inviting all to come to him for rest. It doesn’t matter who you are, how intelligent you think you are, where you are from, rich or poor, male or female, or whatever other label you or someone else has put upon you. Jesus invites all who are weary of carrying heavy burdens to come to him and rest. And these heavy burdens are not just striving after wisdom. Heavy burdens in our lives can be anything that is weighing down our spirit as we journey through life.
In the book, “The Year of Living Biblically,” A. J. Jacobs talks about his experiences trying to live out the Bible’s teachings as literally as possible. It is, at the same time, both a very funny book as he tries to follow some of the more obscure laws in the book of Leviticus, and a profound one, as he comes to terms with a faith he hadn’t practiced much before this experience. In one chapter, he writes about how he unintentionally experienced his first real Sabbath by being accidentally locked into the bathroom. He and his wife lived in an older house, and sometime during the night, the doorknob had fallen off the inside of the bathroom door. He hadn’t noticed and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. And no one was at home at the time to let him out. He writes that for the first ten minutes he tried to escape, with no success. He then goes through worst case scenarios in his head, wondering what would happen if he slipped, hit his head, and died. But there’s something even worse for him than the prospect of death. He writes, “Even more stressful to me is that the outside world is speeding along without me. Emails are being answered. Venti lattes are being sipped.” But after some more time, Jacobs writes that even though the world is going on without him, “. . . I’m OK with it. It doesn’t cause my shoulders to tighten. Nothing I can do about it. I’ve reached an unexpected level of acceptance. For once, I’m savoring the present. I’m admiring what I have, even if it’s thirty-two square feet of fake marble and an angled electrical outlet. I start to pray. And, perhaps for the first time, I pray in true peace and silence—without glancing at the clock, without my brain hopscotching from topic to topic. This is what the Sabbath should feel like. A pause. Not just a minor pause, but a major pause. Not just a lowering of the volume, but a muting. As the famous rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel put it, the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time.”
A sanctuary in time. True pause. A peace that comes from knowing that the world can get along without you just fine. Laying down the burdens you are carrying and giving them over to Jesus. What would it take for us to take one day a week as a true Sabbath, a major pause, so that we could truly rest, knowing that Jesus will help us to carry our burdens? A few years ago, there was a commercial that Chevrolet aired for their Silverado truck that I found very interesting. You see young adults driving along in the truck, and periodically stopping and raising their cell phone. They say, “No,” and they keep driving. When they stop for the last time and say, “Yes!” the camera comes in for a close up, and you see that they are out of range of any cell phone reception. I thought that was a very telling commercial: it showed a desire for people to be out of connection with the world for a time; to take a break from the swirl of information and communication around them.
I know that’s something that’s become increasingly difficult for me to do: step away from the cell phone. Give up communication with the outside world. I mean, now when I’m standing in long lines waiting to check out of the store or waiting to get in to an event, I’m not bored anymore: I have something to read right at my fingertips. I can always check my email, even though most of the messages I get are advertisements. I can check Facebook, even though most of the time it’s the same old same old. Or I can read a book on my Amazon Kindle app. I get twitchy when I’m away from my phone. But, perhaps I am actually enslaved to it. Perhaps I need to remember that the world can get along fine without me for one day. And perhaps I need to remember that God is my true master, and that God, through Jesus, is the one who offers me true rest from this impersonal form of communication. Perhaps I need to remember periodically what it’s like to not only have communion with God, but also face-to-face communication with the people of the Christian community that God has given me.
Maybe your burden isn’t the cell phone, like mine is. Maybe your burden is something completely different. Whatever it is, hear now the good news from Jesus’ lips: “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; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus offers all of us the opportunity to come to him, to rest, and to lay down our burdens for a while. We can rest in Jesus’ presence always, secure in the knowledge that he holds us safely in his arms. Amen.