This is the message I prepared for the fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday 9th July 2017, for the people of Lakes Entrance Uniting Church
Genesis 24:40; Song 2:8-13; Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I don’t know about you, but I often find when I’m reading my Bible that a verse jumps out from nowhere and has the potential to send me off on a tangent. I don’t think that this is necessarily a terrible thing, but it can distract me from what the intended purpose of the passage, or indeed the Bible Study, might have been. In the reading set for today from Genesis 24 we are presented with quite a detailed story of how the servant of Abraham goes back to Abraham’s people in Sumer to find a wife for Isaac. Abraham does not want his son marrying a Canaanite woman, an indigenous woman of the promised land, rather he seeks a bride from his own people. During his setting his servant on his way, and assuring the servant that he will be successful in his task, Abraham speaks in Genesis 24:40 of his confidence in the LORD before whom I walk. That is such a verse for me, and such a lovely phrase, Abraham doesn’t say “God” or “the Lord”, but speaks of a relationship with the One who gives him assurance. Abraham knows God, daily and holistically. There is nothing about Abraham that is hidden from God, and nothing about God that Abraham needs to know that is hidden from Abraham.
And then suddenly there we are, or at least there I am. Rebekah and the whole story of her watering the camels of the servant, her agreeing on the spot to leave her family forever and travel thousands of miles to meet and then marry a stranger, is all forgotten. The point of the story, indicated by the lectionary’s choice of Psalm, is not a wedding within the genealogy of the Jewish people, for Rebekah will become the mother of Esau and Jacob. No, the point of the story is that Abraham walks before God, and that that intimacy is the source of all his strength as a patriarch.
A similar thing happened to me when I read the gospel for this week, although this time I saw it coming. In Matthew 11 Jesus declares the generations of his day to be unaware of the time in which they live, and to be full of contradictions. Wisdom is vindicated by her deeds says Jesus in Matthew 11:19, some early manuscripts say by her children. Jesus makes his point, which is to be aware of what is going on around you, and then he prays thanksgiving to the Father that God has made the truth about the world readily seen by children but not by adults.
Blink and you’ll miss it. One verse can jump out and grab you, regardless of the narrative, and you can learn from what God alone shows you from the written word if you are open and inquisitive. Be aware, be mindful, of God’s active presence.
What is it about children that Jesus commends them as a model of understanding? The parents and teachers amongst us know that children are inquisitive, trusting, hope-filled, straightforward, easy to laugh (or cry), sympathetic and compassionate beings. Children can be vulnerable and so need caring for. Jesus might be telling us that revelation is given to such as these, the precious and trusting ones who stay close to the Father as little kids stay close to daddy. Except that children in Jesus’ day were not the cherished little cherubs of the late Victorian era and into our century: they were perceived by adults to be outsiders to the adult world, and therefore an issue. Children break easily, so there’s always the danger of a parent’s being bereaved or otherwise inconvenienced. Children are disruptive, noisy, inappropriate, clumsy, disobedient, cheeky, foolish, and simple-minded in a bad way. Yet, Jesus says that God reveals the truth to these half-sized terrors, and leaves the civilised, mature, hardworking adults without revelation.
D’uh! That’s not what we want to know! Jesus isn’t talking about God favouring the little cuddle-monsters with their wide-eyed delight at whatever mummy says or does. Jesus says that when showing God’s true nature and revealing the deepest knowledge God overlooks people like you and me, leaving us in the dark, and reveals it all to the boof-heads with ADHD. So, when Jesus says of himself in Matthew 11:27 that no one knows the Son except the Father, and that only God knows the fullest and most intimate stories of the Son, and that no one knows the Father except the Son, (same deal), and those to whom the Son reveals the Father, what he’s saying is that Jesus’ preferred audience for this revelation is the noisy and disruptive.
Why, on earth, would that be the case?
Jesus answers this question, let’s read on. Those who come to the Son in need of the Father will lay down their burdens. They will be yoked to Christ, so he will help in carrying the necessary burdens as the two, Christ and the disciple, push together on the yoke.
So, it is not untrue, neither is it unbiblical, that those who come to God in simplicity, innocence and trust will receive favour and wisdom. Those who come with a childlike faith will be rewarded by grace with love and the intimate secrets of God. Abraham walked before God and God blessed Abraham mightily; that is still true.
But better yet, the disruptive, breakable, always in your face and under your feet, the making too much noise and mess ones, the ones who need God, are especially included by God in the wisdom of God. Wisdom is a chaser, as well as the object of the chase.
Song 2:8-13, as with much of the Song of Songs, is a parable about the chase of Wisdom. Wisdom is the woman in the story, the beloved; the lover is the pursuer of wisdom, the young scholar. The romance then is not between two people, but between the scholar and the scholarship, the student and the study, the disciple and the discipline, the talmid and the Talmud. But with that studious focus look at the words of this poem. The student is playing peek-a-boo with the object of his studies, the personification of wisdom. This is no dry academic exercise of a bored man surrounded by mouldy and dusty books, it’s a dance in the meadow at spring. Show even the slightest interest in God and God will hunt you down like a lover desperate for his beloved, and God will hunger for you like that beloved awaiting her lover’s shadow at the door. Heady stuff.
But this ancient song does not mean that coming to faith is not arduous. It can be light and life, an easy yoke, and a personal relationship with the One before whom we walk who hungers after us, but it is not necessarily like that. As a student, I always liked the metaphorical language of “wrestling with the text”, and since my first degree was in Sociolinguistics I enjoy doing this. Look at Paul’s struggle with discipleship in Romans 7:15-25.
Sin is an ongoing challenge for Paul, much like those noisy children in the marketplace of Jesus. I try to do good, says Paul, but I keep tripping over my past. I try to avoid the evil I once practiced, says Paul, but I keep tripping over the way of the world and being snagged by the temptations which abound in everyday life. Paul was a scholar, a scholar of scholars in face and had been discipled by one of the greatest rabbis of his day, Gamaliel. Paul was a Pharisee, these days we’d call him a Conservative Evangelical, so he knew his scriptures and he knew the best interpretations of them to inform a God-honouring life. He had wrestled with the text, and probably enjoyed himself in that, but the message of the text had left him burdened. And even when he did adopt the yoke of Christ, and stepped out from underneath the crippling demands of the Fundamentalist view of Law, he still found himself falling short of what God had released him in to. From his divided self, Paul cries out that Jesus should be glorified because that is the truth which surpasses the lies and duplicity of his experience.
In Abraham, we hear a man about whom God knows everything, and who knows all that he needs to know about God to walk with God in friendship. Paul is not a friend of God in the way that Abraham was, but as a scholar and a faithful practitioner of the rituals he too knows that God knows him, and Paul knows that what he knows of God is enough to keep him walking the path of discipleship. Both men fell over on that walk, but both me got up every time and kept walking with God. From Jesus, we hear that this is the way of God, not that we must fall over, but that it is okay when we do because God is patient and loving and will pick us up like a lover or wait for us while we pick ourselves up like a daddy teaching his child to be independent of his carrying arms. God is revealed to be like Jesus is, and we read that Jesus was a good bloke who people liked spending time with and who did not fly off the handle when mistakes were made.
The story of the tangent, of that one verse that can grab you even in the middle of a love story told over thousands of miles, is that God’s love evident in God’s desire to share all that God is and all that God has is true for the deepest of deep disciples, and for the rattiest of noisy ratbags in the world. I don’t need to ask which one is you, because it doesn’t matter.
Come, says the Lord, I will tell you marvellous things, and I will give you rest.