Pentecost 5 A: Where We Least Expect God to Be

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Dear Partner in Preaching,

There’s something kind of funky going on here. I’d call it sinister except it’s just too incredibly human, and for that reason understandable, to attribute motives to it. But human or not, understandable or not, it can have devastating consequences. And so it’s worth talking about.

It’s actually something of a two-step waltz. The first step is to decide what you think God should be (and that is usually something that affirms what we already think, feel, believe and/or have done). The second is to judge all others – and that includes their beliefs about God – by this same notion.

I think that’s pretty much what’s going on in this scene from Matthew. John the Baptist comes along, and he doesn’t measure up. He doesn’t conform, that is, to what the folks present think he should be like. He’s too reclusive, too ascetic, a loner, too somber and serious. He should eat and drink more. Then Jesus comes and he’s, well, too much the opposite. He drinks and eats too much, and with the wrong kind of people to boot.

Maybe we should call it the Goldilocks syndrome: never being quite satisfied. John (and the God John represents) is just tooooo severe, while Jesus (and the God he represents) is just tooooo accepting. We’d like our religious leader to be juuuust right, which pretty much means juuuust like us.

But here’s the thing: if God were just like us, who would save us?

Which is perhaps what’s so appealing about our pictures of God. They don’t threaten us, don’t expect change from us, don’t ask us to do all that much, and don’t do much more than affirm us. And affirmation is great, even necessary at times. But it doesn’t save. And so God comes along – first in John, then even more fully in Jesus – in part to disrupt our pictures of God, to shake our hands loose from holding those pictures (which all too often can harden into idols) too tightly.

It’s not possible to live without some picture of God. And, inevitably, simply because we’re mortal, human, fallible (the old word is sinful), we’ll likely picture God in ways that are helpful and unhelpful, clear as well as distorted. And so God comes and shows up where we least expect God to be – in order to shake us up, in order to call what we thought we knew for sure into question, in order to surprise us by being so different from what we expected…and yet precisely what we need.

No wonder Jesus gives thanks that God has revealed all this – and God’s own self to boot – not to the wise but to infants, because that alone surprises us, makes us think twice, challenges our preconceptions, and generally refuses to give into our Goldilocks-like predilections.

Jesus does another thing in this passage as well, though. He doesn’t simply call our pictures and expectations into question, but also gives us another picture. God is the one who bears our burdens. God is the one who shows up in our need. God is the one who comes along side of us. Nothing demonstrates this more than the cross – God’s willingness to embrace all of our life, even to the point of death, in Jesus, to demonstrate God’s profound love and commitment, love and commitment that will not be deterred…by anything.

It’s not necessarily what we want. We often would prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than helps us cope with them, who eliminates challenges rather than equips us for them, and who vanquishes our opponents rather than enables us to make peace with them. Again, it’s not usually what we want, but pretty much exactly what we need.

And all of this should shape not only our picture of the God we know in Jesus, but of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Which means, Dear Partner, what this passage is not about self-care, but discipleship. Jesus isn’t saying, that is, “take care of yourself; if you don’t, who will?” But rather, “as you embark on the discipleship way, I am with you.” Self-care matters, of course, but it’s so very easy to confuse the good news with good advice, and while good advice can be helpful, it also doesn’t save. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it this way to students of his at the underground seminary in Finkenwalde: “God’s intention is to bear or sustain us, not to teach or improve us” (DBWE 14:511).

Perhaps what our people need – and what we need, Dear Partner! – is not so much another command – Rest more! Take care of yourself! – but rather the reminder that God always shows up where we least expect God to be: in the need of our neighbor, in the person that doesn’t look anything like you, in the person who believes and thinks and acts differently than we do and, just as importantly, than we think they should. And that in all these circumstances, our call is the same: to care for them, to meet them where they are, to accept them as we are able.

It’s not easy work. But as we undertake this kind of discipleship – which pretty much has been the subject of the last few weeks of our readings from Matthew – we discover God in Jesus is already there. Waiting for us, encouraging us, forgiving us, bearing us. Which is what makes the burden light, the yoke not just easy but joyful.

We live at a time and place where we are increasingly taught to believe that true joy, deep satisfaction, and the realization of what we were created for comes through self-discovery and self-expression, being authentic to one’s true self. And while I think there’s great value in that kind of authenticity, I’m not sure we can achieve it apart from being in relationship with, and bearing the burdens of, those around us. And so God shows up where we’d least expect God to be to call us to the same place and discover ourselves as we turn away from ourselves to meet the other, and to find our lives by giving them away.

God keeps coming in unexpected, even unlikely places, Dear Partner. And that includes in the words you’ll say this week, in the ordinary bread and wine of the supper of our Lord you will host, and in the life you lead. Blessings on that proclamation in word, sacrament, and deep. The world needs your witness, and I am grateful you have chosen to offer it. God is with you as you do, bearing you up and sustaining you along the way.

Yours in Christ,