Seventh Sunday After Pentecost
Isaiah 55:1-6, 12-13
Matthew 11:2-6, 28
John the Baptist had been baptizing with water, and proclaiming righteousness and the Kingdom of Heaven, in the wilderness of Judea. And in his work he’d managed to enrage King Herod.
Herod had married his brother Phillip’s wife, and did not appreciate John denouncing his doing so. As a result, John, the faithful forerunner of Jesus, was in jail for speaking truth. Meanwhile, Jesus was spreading the good news and performing miracles from place to place. One such occasion is the scene to which we are invited this morning.
In our Gospel lesson, we encounter Jesus who, speaking to the multitudes, is approached by the disciples of John the Baptist, with a question on behalf of the imprisoned John.
“Are you the one who is to come,” they ask him, “or are we to wait for another?”
In earlier chapters of Matthew’s gospel, we are told that John had been boldly proclaiming Jesus’ arrival as Israel’s anticipated Messiah. Now in chapter 11, he’s questioning Jesus. He’s gone from being sure, to doubting. You see, there were others who had claimed to be the messiah. And there were false prophets proclaiming untruths as gospel. So, I can imagine John sitting in that dark prison, overwhelmed, and trying to figure out if he’d somehow gotten it wrong. Somehow wondering if all of that intentional work—all of that good labor in the wilderness had been in vain.
I know how that feels. And maybe you do too. To be sure that God is present in the midst of a given situation, only to begin questioning it because current circumstances don’t seem to reflect the God that was expected.
Growing up in rural South Carolina, I was taught not to question God. Perhaps you were taught the same. So, when I read in these verses that John sent a question like that to Jesus, I prepared for the rebuke that I believed was sure to come.
I waited…and waited…and waited, and it never came.
In fact, Jesus hears John’s question and sends back to him, “the blind can see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are being raised, lepers are cleansed, and good news is being preached.”
Instead of being angry with John for asking the question, Jesus seems to say to him, “John, would you keep your eyes open in faith, and detect how I am moving…even if it isn’t in the way you expected?”
John’s disciples leave; and verses later, after praising John publicly, Jesus says “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
And I just wonder if Jesus wasn’t thinking of John when he said this before the crowd; saying, those of you who are bogged down with questions, and plagued with doubt, come to me.
I believe the Holy Spirit says to us today, have your questions. Bring them to me. I can handle them. And in exchange, I’ll give you rest.
Perhaps John was doubtful.
Or maybe John was just frustrated.
John had been faithfully working, proclaiming the Messiah that was to come, and in fact believing that he had come. When we first encounter John the Baptist, the synoptic gospel writers record him pointing to Jesus saying, “See the Lamb of God”, acknowledging who Jesus is before baptizing him. And instead of the Messiah coming in grandeur and a trail of blazing glory, restoring Israel, this Jesus, from what John was hearing, was increasingly being opposed.
Fully frustrated that things have not worked out the way John expected them to, perhaps he sends his Disciples to Jesus because THIS wasn’t supposed to be the result of his labor.
A few months ago, I had some blueberries in my fridge. Now, I pride myself on being a decent cook, so I decided that I would bake homemade blueberry bread.
I found a recipe and set out all of the ingredients. I mixed them according to the instructions, being careful not to over-stir so that the blueberry bread would not be tough and dry. I even dusted the blueberries with flour to prevent them from sinking during the cooking process. I put my mixture in a greased loaf pan at 350 degrees. 60 minutes later, I opened the oven, and pulled out the most beautiful blueberry loaf! It was perfectly golden, and none of the blueberries had settled at the bottom. I cut a slice and prepared to sink my teeth into it.
I bit into what has got to be the worst blueberry bread I have ever tasted. And even today, I haven’t a clue as to why the bread was so terrible. I was completely frustrated. I mean, I’d been in the kitchen for quite a while, putting effort into making a delicious treat. I’d followed the recipe to the letter. And the results had not been what I had anticipated.
I was exasperated after being in the kitchen for a few hours making bread.
How much MORE John must have known frustration as he, an innocent man, sat in prison for doing the work of God.
Have you ever known that feeling of reckless frustration? If not with something small like baking, have you ever lived a life of faith, only to find yourself—or your relationships—or your finances—or your health—in turmoil? Or worked for justice and freedom for the oppressed around the globe, only to feel that for every step forward, there were a thousand backwards? Have you ever in desperation found yourself tired, and frustrated, and wondering if God was going to actually PROVE to be the God you placed faith in; or if you should expect someone else.
Perhaps John sends his disciples to say, “Are you the expected or should we wait for someone else” to let Jesus know that his circumstances didn’t reflect the Messiah’s coming that he had preached about in the wilderness. This couldn’t be the Jesus he had preached about. This Jesus wouldn’t allow him to be sitting in prison!
So now in verse 28, when Jesus says, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden,” maybe he’s thinking of John and saying, “come to me, all of you who are frustrated with me, because your faithful input hasn’t yielded the expected output.”
It occurs to me that regardless of which state of mind John happened to be in when he sent those disciples to Jesus, in verse 28, Jesus says, “come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
The rest Christ is talking about is not a passive idea of peace, the one often preached about when we encounter this verse. It isn’t an “all of a sudden, things are going to miraculously get better, and you’re going to be at peace” kind of rest.
But rest here is “renewal.” It is “space to breathe.” It is “recovery of strength.” It is “support.”
When we are walking up stairs and gently or roughly place our hands on the rail, we’re resting on it, trusting it for support. This is the rest that Jesus is offering in his presence.
Rest as breathing room when theological questions outweigh answers, and we find ourselves overwhelmed.
Rest as renewed strength to stay the course even through frustrations and impatience.
Rest as the recovery of heart to continue to hope.
Rest as renewed courage and endurance to continue to fight the good fight for justice, for each and every being under the sun, and to call out every power that would misrepresent the character of God.
Rest as holding us up—supporting our shaking frames, when we are carrying the weight of our burdens AND our callings, and we are near to falling.
Rest as rejuvenation to continue being about Kingdom work, knowing that it is not in vain.
Rest as strength to trust that God IS, even when we can’t track God.
Today, we are beckoned by the One who says to us:
Come to me those of you who have questions.
Come to me those of you who are working and frustrated.
Come to me those of you who are weary.
Come to me those of you who are overwhelmed.
Come to me those of you who are broken.
In my presence you’ll find rest for your souls.