January 27, 2013 “Truth in a World of Illusions” (Matthew 11:16-19)

The Text Says:

            According to the Gospel of Matthew Jesus was frustrated with his generation. He compared them to children playing games in the marketplace. But these youngsters were peevish, intractable, impossible to please. The immediate context was during his time, but his principle is timeless. There are recalcitrant people in every generation who respond to the gospel like spoiled children, who “take their ball and go home.” They refused to play wedding or funeral. Matthew is contrasting two styles of preachers: John and Jesus. John was negative, prophetic, confrontive. Jesus was pastoral, accepting, affirming. They didn’t like either one. Was there ever a clearer picture of hollow religion?  It’s easy to make religion a game and imagine that in playing it is the reality.

Hear the sermon.

The Preacher Says:

            When Jesus gets mad I get interested.  When he laughs or cries, or yells; when he acts like a human being I perk up. Because underneath the lofty biblical claims that he’s the Son of God, resides a passionate person who wants the best for us, and is stung by criticism and apathy. His exasperation belies his anger: “To what shall I liken this generation?” Calling out an entire generation seems a bit reckless, because every generation is a mixed‑bag, with its share of “weeds and wheat;” its own flawed visions and defective solutions. Every generation clings to its prejudices and tribalism. And there are always exceptions. But also in every era there’s a remnant that “dances when he piped and mourns when he dirged.” I guess the best we can expect from any generation is to try to leave it better than we found it. Ours has some catching up to do.

            There’s nothing notorious about these towns that brought forth such a strong reaction from Jesus: Capernaum, Chorazin and Bethsaida. They’re just nondescript fishing villages up in the Galilee, where most of his disciples came from. They’re not wicked places like Nineveh or Sodom, full of brothels, drugs, gangs, atheists, or devil worshipers. They’re just another bunch of apathetic whiners. Another case where Jesus is impatient with those who see themselves as victimized.

            He preached his head off and healed a bunch of folks there. So his frustration stemmed from them–settling for so much less, for the safety of muddling along rather than make a difference. They reminded him of a bunch of bratty kids playing at the marketplace. He seems incredulous that they could be like that:  ’We played the flute, and you didn’t dance; we wailed, and you wouldn’t mourn.‘ Well boo hoo! They nixed both happy games and sad games.

            John shared the table with no one and they figured ‘He has a demon.’ Jesus shared the table with everyone, “pigging‑out with sots, and hanging‑out with sinners.” In a society defined by what, when, and with whom one eats, both John and Jesus were unacceptable. John’s tough asceticism messed up their social networking. And the lighter touch of Jesus made him too hip. Like in the fable of “The Three Bears,” it’s always “too” something. Soup too hot; too cold. Bed too hard; too soft. 

            So the Gospel of John allows as how “Jesus wept.” But in Matthew he rants and raves! Because God knows nothing is so fatal to faith as indifference; to be cool, uncaring, and spiritually dead. Yeah Jesus got jacked-up about it, because two preachers didn’t have what it takes. John was a loner who preferred the suburbs. Jesus was more at home in an urban setting. Frequenting the synagogues, the life of the party at weddings.

            They had one thing in common: both preached against the sin most common to humanity, the need we all share — for repentance. The difference is only in tone. John didn’t beat around the bush. He put it down there where the cow gets his breakfast! “Repent or else!”  Repentance is what allows us to see today’s crises, before they’re validated by tomorrow’s disasters.

            Jesus didn’t beat around the bush either. But he’s the softer side of the Baptist. “I did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved.” One’s confrontive; the other’s redemptive. John’s interested in right and wrong. Jesus is interested in good and evil. They represent two approaches to life that continue to show up in people. Some are motivated by positive ideals. Others excel at finding fault and spend their lives on the imperfections around us; which makes us oblivious to the ones within us. That’s the catch.

            Far be it for any of us to try to second guess God — as to which of these two interpretations is the better. Both impulses are always with us: the conservative and the liberal instincts. But whichever one we opt for, there is one constant: God’s appeal came to the people of the first century in at least two distinct ways. This stands as a corrective for those who are too certain that God is at work exclusively in those who look like them, think like them, act like them. Matthew however, presents God at work in John and Jesus. That only reflects on the largesse of God, who speaks to human diversity with divine diversity. Effective communication in a pluralistic society calls for more than one approach. And not just more than one speaker, but more than one kind of speaker.

            The disparate ministries of John and Jesus should remind us that whatever cause we espouse can never be comprehensive. So we should respect those with the ability to reach different ears with different needs. John and Jesus dovetailed to show that there’s more than one way to God. Both had a place in God’s desire to set things straight. Don’t be too hard on John because he stood for personal responsibility. Or think Jesus was soft. He pitched a fit in the temple over religious malfeasance.

            When Jesus pays a compliment I listen up: “What did you go to the wilderness to see; a reed shaking in the wind? If you’re looking for a prophet, there’s none greater born among women than John.” Both the Christ and the Baptist gave their lives to redeem God’s wayward creation. But that spoiled generation rejected both. So Jesus didn’t have much hope for his generation.

            To what shall we liken our generation? The “I Facebook, therefore I am” generation. (With apologies to Descarte). Products of our fast paced, media saturated, fame obsessed culture that covets exposure. “I tweet therefore I am.”  Now this is from one who’s put on the brakes after email and occasional texting. This generation screams “Entertain Me,” but don’t engage me. Let’s keep that at a distance. Oh we can retain trivia, but what about processing information? 

            Our generation is contributing to the death of depth. A recent psychological study shows narcissism doubled from 1994 to 2009 with a spike from 06-09, which happens to coincide with the rise of social media. Technology now allows people to live out their delusions.

            The bizarre cyber‑scandal of a Notre Dame linebacker’s internet girlfriend had hoax written all over it. Dude! What, what, what! This guy goes to college? You can even buy “friends and likes” to make your face page more attractive. It’s easier than dealing with the messiness of real people, when you can fabricate unidirectional admiration from invisible entities in different time zones. At what point in the pursuit of fake adulation does somebody start to enjoy the taste of their own bath water? No need to bother to drain the tub of the unreality. Somebody’s convinced us we can have it all for nothing.

            Our generation is trying to build a castle of self esteem on a foundation of quicksand! Selling out for instant validation like we used to get gold stars in school. Don’t you miss the time when somebody’s personal life was personal? I mean people used to get embarrassed! With more apologies to Descarte, “I am who I give my time to.” Shallowness is winning the day. We go to school to know more. We go to church to know deeper. But a lot more go to school than to church. And we see where that’s got us.

            It’s not just the kids of this generation. Our society’s collective standards have slipped badly. Media networks have caught on so that “reality shows” are compelling. It’s easy to live like life is a game, then imagine the reproduction is reality. But people get captivated by exposure ‑‑ hoping their own opportunity will fall outa the sky! Opportunities are made from below, they don’t fall from above. People feel entitled to shortcuts that fly in the face of common sense, spending money that isn’t there.

            Movie producer Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) said: “At a time when our behavior may well lead us to extinction, we seem to have no awareness at all. We are stubborn, self‑destructive conformists. Any other view of our species is just a self‑congratulatory delusion.” Other than that, I guess everything’s fine! I wish I could be more positive. But I reckon I’m sounding more like John than Jesus but I gotta call it like I see it. Wanta look pretty? Buy a magic pill. Want employment right out of college? Where’s my $250k salary? In our day looking great has replaced true greatness, so that it’s increasingly harder to tell the difference between the real deal and a cheap knock off.

            All the generations, one after another, pile up like spans of a mighty bridge over the centuries. This church has a positive model to live up to. Spanning the generations for 375 years; nobly standing for the sensible idea of religious liberty and the wisdom of the church not trying to dictate to the state. So we move forward into the future to meet the complex challenges of our generation with the hope that others did it in theirs, we can too. We have bequeathed to us a legacy of a solid foundation from that conscientious “cloud of witnesses that surround us even now.” That generation knew something about sacrifice, commitment, and courage that made it possible for us to still be here today.

            To what shall we compare these maximalists in a minimalist society? Stand them beside the symbols of our day, the self‑absorbed, self‑promoters, like the Kardashians, sitting around sniping at each other?  Holy Jesus! Tom Brokaw believes the World War II generation was the greatest. For sure it had a lot more going for it than ours. But every generation must be interpreted in retrospect. I can only blush when I think of those who come after us. If I had my druthers, I’d just as soon not think about it. I just think we could use a little more church and lot less You Tube.

            But there’s no denying that Jesus was fed up with his generation. I guess his hopes are so high for every generation. To what shall we liken ours? It looks to me like we’re clones of the generation Jesus spoke to who were never satisfied with dancing or dirging. It’s a generational question, but it requires from each of us, a personal response.    

 ProvidencePrayers: (1/27/13)

                    O God, who calls us to faith ventures which we can’t see the end at the beginning, through perils unknown, grant us the courage to “launch out into the deep,” to follow Thee, not knowing where we’re going, yet knowing all we need to know: only that Thy hand leads us and we can “lean upon the everlasting arms.” May this hour of worship enable us to see Thee more clearly and view each other more gently, as we remember all for whom life is hard. Those who found loyalty to Thee to be costly. Where there is hate and confusion, soften and enlighten us. Where there is apathy, restore us. Where there are burdens, strengthen us. Where there is loneliness, befriend us. Where there is sickness, heal us. Where there is sorrow, encourage us.

            Some of us are low and need to be lifted; some of us are high and need to be deflated; some of us are angry and need to be heard; some aren’t angry enough and need to be spurred. Too many are certain of too much; while most of us are mystified by what we encounter. Enable us to grow beyond a superior morality; to keep striving to keep this church vital, to love spontaneously, to welcome genuinely, to have a credible spirituality.

            Prepare us in this hour to be about the work, rather than complain when things don’t work. Equip us to be generous in giving, faithful in worship, diligent in service, winsome in witness, patient in disagreements, forgiving of flaws, and in that way, to remind others of the love of the Christ, in whose name we pray. 


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