All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 11 October 2015

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 11 October 2015

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


Matthew 11. 20-end

“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…… And you, All Saints,Margaret Street, will you be exalted to heaven?  No, you will be brought down to Hades.”

I’m relieved that you are alert enough to spot my adaptation of the text to our own context.

Jesus has not spoken much of judgement up this point in Matthew’s Gospel. He has preached a message of Good News and exercised a ministry of mercy.  But now Matthew shows him as more than a wandering preacher and performer of good works: as the future judge of the world who knows not only what will happen on judgement day to Jewish cities, but to pagan ones as well.

But before we rush to judgement, something serious Christians are prone to do, we should see where and how Jesus preaches judgement here.  He does not pronounce judgement on pagans.  His stark words of warning, his references to hell, are all reserved for the privileged, for the old and new people of God, for those who thought they were in. 

He preached this message: not to those thought by the devout to deserve punishment or need conversion – but to those who thought they were already converted – those who had experienced the works of Jesus.

So the message of judgement is directed to the religious of Israel, the disciples of Jesus, and the spiritually privileged of Galilee. Judgement is a message for spiritual people- a message for comfortable and unreal Christians – that is to us here.

The people of those Galilean towns had experienced Jesus and his power.  But having had Jesus and his miracles in their midst is not salvation. The Church wherever it is should feel itself confronted by this judgement addressed to the places where Jesus had done most of his miracles.  As Jesus was present there in word and deed, so he is present to his church in word and sacrament. The point is: Have we changed as a result?  Are we still changing? Have we been lifted up?  Jesus is not interested in us claiming his presence but in our response to that presence: he is concerned with repentance.

So it is Christian communities who will be in special trouble on judgement day, not because Jesus has not been amongst them, but because he has. Jesus’ presence, without change, can lead to damnation deeper than that of Sodom.  Sodom will have a better day in court than Capernaum – even though it was Jesus’ mission base and Sodom was a by-word for perversion.  Capernaum had more opportunities than Sodom: the experience of Jesus’ loving kindness but that kindness did not give birth to changed lives.  We have Jesus present in word, sacrament and people.  Does Jesus have us? Are we actually changing under the impact of his grace? 

The message of Jesus the judge is not ordinarily for the contrite, the broken-hearted, or the repentant.  What they need   – and what they get in the next part of the passage – is the grace of Jesus.  The last thing they need from the Church is scolding: an unrelieved message of judgement is no help. Jesus is judge only for those who in his presence are not making any decision to repent, to be changing their whole way of life.

The purpose of preaching has been described as “to afflict the comfortable, and to comfort the afflicted,” and in that order. That sums up the meaning of our passage: Jesus as judge to the unrepentant, as saviour to the heavy-laden. 

In reality, most of us are both repentant and un-repentant.  So we all need Jesus Christ as judge of the smug, and saviour of the sorry.  The Word of judgement is no less gracious, in its own way, than many words of grace. It is meant not so much to condemn as to intensify repentance. 

“Those whom I love, I reprove and chasten; so be zealous and repent.”  (Rev. 3.19) It is part of the grace of God to warn.  Judge is not the first word or the last about Jesus, but saviour. But Jesus as judge is the constant middle word of faithful preaching.

Jesus might have been discouraged by the lack of response but he still gives thanks.  The world’s reaction may be a source of woe to him, but the Father’s ultimate sovereignty is one of encouragement. To believe that human beings have the last word in history inevitably leads to complaint, to blaming others, rather than to thanksgiving.  The Church needs to learn from her Master’s trust in the sovereignty of God, if she is persevere. Too much attention to an unresponsive world, too little appreciation of God’s rule can push us into the slough of despond.

“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.” 

Who are the “wise and intelligent” and the “infants” here?

God does not reveal himself to the religious elite – but to the underclass, the uneducated, among whom in his time were women, Galileans, poor people out in the country who had neither time nor opportunity to study.  By Matthew’s time it includes the Gentiles.  The wise and learned represent the religious elite: the educated, the specialists, the authorities in religious matters.  The little people are the poor or poor in spirit of the Beatitudes, the sinners of the countryside scorned by the Pharisees.  Among those who looked for God to intervene dramatically to restore Israel, the secrets of the future were revealed only to the spiritually “deep.”  The rabbis taught that wisdom was embodied especially in Torah and those who studied it.  

 “Yes, Father, for this was your sovereign plan.”  That plan, celebrated repeatedly in OT, is that, “this is one to whom I will look, to the humble and contrite in spirit, who trembles at my word.”  (Isaiah 66.2). The theme of both testaments is God’s plan to have spiritual fellowship with little people.

Jesus then speaks of the mutual “knowledge” existing between himself and the Father.  Father and Son are bound in a mutual exchange, in the sense that “knowing” another person includes deep intimacy and approval. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3.17).    No one, however skilled in religious matters – can know God in the way Jesus does.  We can only attain such knowledge through Jesus imparting it as he wills.  All the teaching and healing activity in which Jesus has been engaged, “these things,” is a revelation on his part of God and of God’s compassionate saving will for humankind. As Jesus will explain to Peter, this is not knowledge obtainable by human resources – “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven” (Matt. 16.17), but only through revelation.

Jesus’ words challenge all claims to theological knowledge and religious expertise that do not start from reflection on what “little ones” had come to know about God.  Theology, if it is to speak of God as Jesus reveals God to be, must stoop down and go through the narrow door:  “Therefore we before him bending….” as we will sing at Benediction.

The Jesus who is the only one who knows the Father’s saving will, then issues an invitation:

“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 shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  (Matt. 11.28-29)

There is an edge to this invitation. Jesus says, “Come to me”, and not to the religious authorities. The law was seen as a yoke laid on people to enable them to do God’s work; to live as God intended, but rigorist interpreters of it laid heavy burdens on people – ones which they are unwilling to help lift. 

Because of his relationship with the Father, Jesus speaks as one who has the authority to interpret the true meaning of the Law: “You have heard it said, but I say to you.”  Jesus invites all who are weary and burdened – ordinary people unlettered as regards the law – who labour under such burdensome rulings. They are to come to him and find rest. 

The Greek word for “rest”, anapausis suggests a refreshing break at an oasis for desert travelers.  God’s resting on the seventh day following creation and the idea of the Sabbath as a day of rest and union with God led to the end of all things being seen as a time of rest.  The sense is not of idleness and absence of activity but of arrival at fullness of life in the kingdom, the enjoyment of an eternal Sabbath with God.  Jesus presents himself as the one who safely lead burdened humanity to that rest.

But the relief is not just for the future.  Those who come to Jesus will find him “gentle and humble of heart.”  They will find his yoke “easy” and his burden “light.”  The gospel presents Jesus as humble and gentle of heart.  Far from lording it over others, he seeks to lift the burdens of those who flocked to him from near and far. 

But, if we have heard his radical interpretation of the law in the Sermon on the Mount, can we really describe his yoke as easy and his burden as light?  Is not the righteousness for which he calls more demanding, and more ‘burdensome’, than that taught by the scribes and pharisees?

There is no easy way round this apparent inconsistency but we find a clue to its resolution in the text’s powerful sense of Jesus’ presence:  “Come to me….I will give you rest; my yoke,….my burden.”

Ease and lightness are not to be found in settling for lower standards, but in learning that all fulfilment of what Jesus calls for is preceded and made possible by a deep relationship with him, and a sense of being grasped by his love.   His claim to be gentle and humble of heart is an invitation to enter into an exchange of love.  Such love, which is an extension of the love of the Father, is what can make even the most difficult requirements “easy” and “light.” A yoke which is “easy” is one which fits properly. Yoked together with Jesus and with others, we find that burdens become light.  All Jesus’ rulings on the law in the Sermon on the Mount give priority to engagement of the heart and to the promotion of human relationships over purely ritual and external prescriptions.  When the heart is engaged, when values are lived out in a community that shares and seeks to promote them, then we find an ease and lightness in discipleship.