Over the course of my life I have found that most people don’t really have a problem with Jesus. Many who don’t call themselves Christians actually think Jesus is pretty great. Or to use the words of the Doobie Brothers song, “Jesus is just alright with me. Just is just alright, oh yeah.” Now, most of these folks wouldn’t go as far as calling Jesus their Lord and Savior, and many haven’t even troubled to read the gospels; but the idea of Jesus as a loving, just, good guy sticks with them.
Back when I started as a pastor, I bought a book called They Like Jesus but Not the Church. It’s by Dan Kimball, who was a pastor in southern California. Early in his book, Kimball set out to show that there’s not really animosity towards Jesus in our culture. He illustrates this with things famous people have said about Jesus to the media.
Mike Dirnt, the bassist of Green Day says, “I’m down with J. C. He’s cool.”
Pamela Anderson, famous from Baywatch and reality TV once explained why she gives money to the homeless by saying, “If refuse one of them, I’d be like, ‘Oh my God. What if that was Jesus?’”
Moby, the DJ, mused, “I really love Christ, and I think that the wisdom of Christ is the highest, strongest wisdom I’ve ever encountered.”
And to top it off by escaping pop culture a bit, Albert Einstein said, “I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene….No one can read the Gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus.”
If we could transport these folks back into today’s gospel text, they would be among the crowds, who in Matthew’s telling seem to hang on Jesus’ every word. The life that he is describing is something compelling, something different, something that causes them to want to be with Jesus.
But not everyone is happy. What Jesus is doing is stirring up trouble particularly among those who are most serious about how they practice religion. Speaking to the Pharisees, the religious group most concerned with pleasing God by faithful adherence to the law, Jesus laments, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is 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.’”
You see, the Pharisees were troubled both by Jesus and by his cousin, John the Baptist. Both of them challenged the religious world the Pharisees had constructed, and so they were happy with neither. John? He lived in the wilderness and ate locusts and wild honey. He called for a radical repentance that appealed to some, but not the Pharisees. He was the one wailing, but they did not join in the mourning. Jesus was the opposite. He spent time with tax collectors and sinners. He was with those who didn’t have time for synagogue. He turned water into wine at a wedding. He embraced life. He was the one playing the flute, but they would not dance to his tune. Mourning didn’t work. Neither did enjoyment.
Isn’t it kind of funny how people don’t know exactly what they want but they can be certain about what they don’t want? I’ve had that problem from time to time at a restaurant. I know I don’t want the pizza. I just had a chicken sandwich, so I don’t want that. But I don’t know what to order! The Pharisees definitely did not want the way of John the Baptist, and they rejected the lively way of Jesus. I guess what the Pharisees wanted was to be left alone to stay on the path that they believed would please God, but Jesus was right there among them presenting a challenge to their very way of life.
This was actually not a light-hearted disagreement between the Pharisees and Jesus. Their accusation that he was a “drunkard” was rooted in their understanding of the Torah, and particularly Deuteronomy 21:18-21, where it says, “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear and be afraid.”
Have I told you before that the Bible is not really a great parenting manual?
Our reading skips over verses 20-24, but those verses reveal that Jesus is among his neighbors. They know him. He is familiar to them, so much so that they are the most vicious in their rejection of him. Those who should be in the best place to know and accept the way of Jesus are the the ones who reject him. The most religious find themselves threatened. Jesus’ neighbors find themselves looking down on the local boy who got a bit too big for his britches. The familiarity breeds contempt.
But I want to turn the tables on us now. There’s a real danger that we churchy folks can act like the Pharisees or like Jesus’ neighbors. For the insiders it can be tempting to think that we’ve got it all figured out and that anyone or anything that challenges our neatly constructed world is a problem for us. For those who know of Jesus from the outside, think he’s a nice guy until he starts making demands like “take up your cross and follow me,” it’s tempting to keep Jesus safe as a moral teacher who came to make life a little better. Neither perspective, of course, is true.
And what’s more, Christians have become more like the Pharisees than many of us would like to admit. Perhaps you’ve had a friend or family member try to shame you into behaving differently, in a way that conforms to their understanding of Jesus but not yours. Perhaps — and I hope this isn’t true — you’ve been the one who has done this to someone.
People grow tired of the church because Christians have focused on their narrow interpretation of the faith that they leave no room for Christianity that doesn’t fully conform to their understanding. It’s a losing situation for them. The goal posts of what is right and wrong always keep moving. One commentator frames this well, “There are so many Christians who are working for good, following the wisdom of God and God’s will for his people, who are then punished for that good work because it does not toe a particular line.” They have lost the forest for all the trees.
After addressing the ways that the Pharisees are reluctant to get on board with what God is doing right in front of them, Jesus prays and then makes an offer. His prayer speaks of how God’s wisdom is found in the innocent and simple. It’s found not in the complexities of religion but in the simple acceptance that Jesus is God’s son sent into the world to bring eternal life. In some ways, Christianity is so simple — God loves the world so much that God sent Jesus to remedy our sin problem and to call us to a better, fuller way of life. Yet, we need the church, preaching, teaching, and community constantly to pull us back from overcomplicating things or from growing weary – because this way may be simple, but it is also long.
Jesus’ talk concludes with some of the most beautiful, welcoming words in all of scripture, and I’m going to read them now from Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, because it’s a simply wonderful rendering: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
Who doesn’t want that? Real rest. Unforced rhythms of grace. Living freely and lightly. Doesn’t that just sound wonderful?
Yet it goes against all of our impulses — mine especially. We like to do. We like to act. We like to earn. That’s the way to get anywhere in life. But Jesus is the window through which we can perceive God. If you want to know God the Father, look to God the Son. It’s that simple.
Jesus isn’t a law enforcement officer. He’s the Lord of all life, and who better to listen to than the Author of Life himself? He welcomes all who would come. In the assessment of one of my favorite authors, N. T. Wright, “The welcome he offers, for all who abandon themselves to his mercy, is the welcome God offers through him. This is the invitation which pulls back the curtain and lets us see who ‘the father’ really is — and encourages us to come into his loving, welcoming presence.”
Wouldn’t it be nice to learn the unforced rhythms of grace? I will say that one of the positive developments for me over the past couple of years has been the freedom to participate in the music of this church. Lately I’ve picked up singing in the choir — such a lovely group! And after years of hardly touching a piano, I now play almost every week. Sometimes, like this week, I also get the joy of leading you in song. One of the most magical parts of music is when an ensemble falls into complete alignment. The choir’s breathing and tone hit the mark. The band hits its stride where everything just flows freely. Sometimes the opposite happens and the musicians are just out of sync. It feels terrible. It feels like everything is going to fall apart.
But when it aligns? Those are the unforced rhythms of grace. And that’s life in alignment with Jesus our Savior who calls us to keep company with him. To learn the way to live lightly and freely. Who wouldn’t want that? Sometimes we misunderstand Jesus. We want the free gift of grace, but then we want to work our way towards earning it. We struggle and strive, but that gets us nowhere. Jesus says, “Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life.” Who wouldn’t want that? Come to Jesus, friends. Come to Jesus.