An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Come To Me, All You Who Are Beating Yourselves Up

A sermon on Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30 & Romans 7:15-25 by Nathan Nettleton

From time to time, some public figure has a spectacular moral failure and becomes our public sinner of the month. This month’s public sinner has been Shane Warne. Actually Shane’s lodged a few entries over the years, but this time it really seems to be catching up with him. I had a rather unpleasant experience this week as the public discussed Warnie’s latest trip over his regular stumbling block. Very unpleasant. I began to see myself in the stumbling Shane Warne. Now before any of you start filing stories with the Baptist Witness, let me clarify that I haven’t been out in night clubs pestering anyone for sex, and I haven’t been sending raunchy text messages to anyone I’m not married to. But I am recognising some ugly things that I have in common with Shane Warne, and that we both have in common with the Apostle Paul and probably with all of you too.

It is probably true that the reason we get so fascinated by our high profile public sinners is that we all see something of ourselves in them. But because we don’t want to acknowledge it in ourselves, it is easier to expose and condemn it in someone else. We ridicule and vilify someone else as a way of venting but ignoring a violent hatred of something lurking within ourselves. And such venting keeps us in denial about ourselves and therefore unable to face up to the things that weigh us down, and find freedom from them.

The passage we heard from Paul’s letter to the Romans is a classic description of what we will find if we muster the courage to take a good hard look inside ourselves. And it is so well known because, whether we like to admit it or not, we all relate to it. It just rings true to our experience of life. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can decide to do the right thing, but then I can’t do it. I wrong thing I do not want to do is what I find myself doing.”

We know this experience in the obvious outward actions. I can decide that this year I will stop spending money on fashionable but unnecessary consumer products and instead give more money to worthy causes, but instead I either find myself powerless to resist that bargain, and then that one too, or I resist, but feel myself constantly burdened and worn down by the effort of my new virtue. Even when I succeed, it is no freedom. My very success drains me of life.

We know this experience too in the more hidden places within our own hearts and minds. I can decide that I will stop being so judgemental of others and just accept them as they are, but the next time someone does something that gets under my skin, I find that my decision is powerless to change the way I react. Even if I manage to smile and recite a mantra about non-judgemental acceptance in my head, my stomach has tightened and my knuckles have clenched. My efforts to think and respond differently have become a crushing burden that I can hardly move under. Sin still wins at the end of the day, either by getting me to do what I did not want to do, or by mutating my restraint into resentment that alienates me from myself, from others, and from God.

Underpinning all this is a pattern of human desire that we are seldom willing to acknowledge.  It is unhealthily but absolutely normal to desire what others around us have. The desire to keep up with the Jones is not a peculiar aberration of modern western culture. The ten commandments reach their climax in the most impossible demand of all, the prohibition of desiring the things that belong to your neighbour. And yet not only is our whole economy built around encouraging us to be competitive in our desires for what our neighbours have, but it seems to be written into the fabric of our being. We discover what we want by observing what other people want and unconsciously imitating them. We are persuaded of the value of possessing something by observing others desiring to possess it. Have you ever observed the ugly phenomena of a man who has long since lost his desire for his wife who is suddenly fired up with a passion to keep her when he is confronted by another mans desire for her? If we were capable of obeying the tenth commandment, then the preceding prohibitions of murder, adultery, stealing and lying would be superfluous. It is the rivalry of our desires that leads to such acts of violence and deceit.

We can hear Jesus commenting on this phenomena in the gospel reading we heard. The rivalry of our desires sets us against each other, and we become unable to recognise or embrace any offer of life. “This generation,” Jesus says, “are like kids ganging up on each other in the schoolyard and calling each other names. When John the Baptiser taught you about fasting and disciplined simplicity, you said he had a demon. When I come eating and drinking, you say I’m not spiritual enough. Whatever is offered to you, you begin to desire the opposite, and your desires lead you to reject the gifts that are being offered.”

Jesus could see where this was going to end up. He knew that rivalries and desires that are denied and suppressed become poisonous. They fester and erupt in vindictive anger. They lead us to reject and expel the one who possesses what we cannot admit we want. Rather than face up to the sin within ourselves, we categorise others as sinners and vilify them and victimise them and seek to destroy them. Jesus knew what we would do to him. He knew that we would find his freedom so infuriating that we would brand him as a sinner and seek to destroy him. With all our learning and sophistication, we miss what little children could plainly see; that the pathway to freedom cannot be taken by force, not even the apparently benign and socially acceptable force of careful social management and self-improvement. And in our inability to see it, we lash out and destroy the one who offers it. Even if geography and time kept us from being there to bay for Jesus’ blood, we nevertheless expel him from our midst and kill his message by turning it into yet another set of commandments to weigh us down and suck the life out of us.

What has all this got to do with Shane Warne and me? I have no doubt that when Shane Warne promised to be faithful to his wife, he meant it. But his intention did not rule his behaviour, and the older he has got, the more out of control his desires have become. It doesn’t happen that way for everyone. Most people are dealing with their desires by seeking to control them, and as they mature, they get better at controlling them. This is not the freedom offered in Christ, but it works as a means of keeping our desires from erupting into full blown war. But Shane Warne has a problem, and in a funny kind of way and on a smaller scale, I may share something of it with him. Shane Warne is brilliantly gifted in something that gains him a lot of public adulation. People say that he is a genius, which he is, and a great man, which he all too obviously is not. But if someone like him falls for his own publicity and begins to believe that his genius in one arena leads extends to the rest of his life as well, then he can become horribly stuck in a fantasy world where there is no need to grow up because he is already everything the world around him loves and applauds. And so, as Peter Roebuck so insightfully wrote in the paper this week, Michael Jackson is forever thirteen, and Shane Warne is forever eighteen, and the disaster of that is that, far from finding the freedom for our souls offered in Christ, they are not even able to develop the normal mature restraint that keep most people from making such spectacular fools of themselves.

And me? Well, my gifts do not attract the sort of public adulation that Shane Warne’s attract, because I’m a preacher and writer, not a cricketer. But God has given me a gift that earns me a certain amount of acclaim. And most of the time I’m not in too much danger of that acclaim derailing me, because I spend my time among you people, and you know me well enough to know that I am not my gifts. You know enough about my foibles and failings to know that my gifts are not evidence of any greatness in me, but that they are evidence that God sends his rain on the righteous and the unrighteous alike. You know that although I have a great gift, I am a stumbling man with a lot of growing up to do before any kind of spiritual greatness could ever be rightly attributed to me.

But in a little over a month, I will be off on a four month trip that will take me to visit places and people who do not know me as a person, but know only my gifts. I know that when I read great writings from people I don’t know, I make the assumptions that they must be extraordinary people, and now I am going to be meeting people who only know me through my writings. I run the risk of being feted by people who have no basis on which to distinguish between my gifts and the substance of my being. And I run the risk of beginning to see myself through their eyes, and thinking that instead of being a gifted man with a lot of growing up to do, that I am some sort of spiritual giant who has made the grade. I’m pretty susceptible to that, because I have grown up craving acclaim and feeling that I can only be loved and valued if I have earned people’s acclamation. But if I fall for that acclamation and begin to believe that I am what people who don’t know me think I might be, then I will be on the same fatal road of self-delusion that Shane Warne seems to have gone careering down.

 “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” says Jesus, “and I will give you rest.” Those words seem to evoke an intense longing in every person who ever hears them. It is not that Jesus is promising to lift the burden of ordinary responsibilities and day to day life from us. How could he? And why would he? He is speaking of the burden trying to live up to our own demands; of the burden of trying to restrain our wayward desires; of the burden of trying to make ourselves into better people by our own resolute determination.

“Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens. Come to me all you who are beating yourselves up over your inability to break yourselves free of sin. Come to me.” We so often think we can’t come to Jesus until we have got ourselves sorted out, got ourselves sufficiently under control. But Jesus says, “Come to me and let me deal with that.” You see the fact is, that the more I concentrate on my sin and on trying to defeat it, the more enslaved to it I become. We need to honestly acknowledge it, but that is so we can hand it over to Jesus, not so we can tackle it all by ourselves. If I spend that four months focussed on trying my hardest not to succumb to my sin, I will stumble over it for sure. The effort required will consume so much energy that I’ll be left exhausted and more vulnerable to it than ever. The way to have the burden of it lifted and to be free of it will be for me to focus on coming to Jesus and putting my trust in him. If I focus on him, and model myself on him, I will find myself free of the desire to model myself on the models of success I see around me. I will be free of the need to compete for my bit of success and grasp for the things I think my neighbours already have. For if I focus on imitating Christ, I will be following one who can model for me the letting go of all desires but the desire to conform to the image of God, the image in which I was created and into which I am called to grow.

“Come to me. Take my yoke upon you.” There is a bit of ambiguity in where Jesus fits in this image. He could be calling us to take his yoke in the sense that he is the bullock driver who holds the reins. Then if we can wrest the reins from the hands of sin and give control instead to Jesus we will be saved. We will be under the easy yoke of one who has defeated the forces which cripple our ability to be what we yearn to be. And while the image of taking on new work may not immediately sound like an image of rest, Jesus is saying that this work fits, and because it fits, it is easy and light and gives rest to our souls.

But there is another place that Jesus could be in this picture. When he says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me,” it sounds like we may be supposed to learn from him by doing what he does, and a bullock doesn’t learn by doing what the bullock driver does, but by doing what a more experienced bullock does. Jesus may well be thinking of the paired bullocks with double yoke here. He may actually be calling us to be paired with him in a double yoke, pulling together, working together on the same job. “Come to me,” he says, “and get into the harness with me and work shoulder to shoulder with me.” What an beautiful call to those of us who have felt driven into the ground by forces that are too great for us and which seek only our destruction.

There in the harness with Jesus, we will learn to live free of the competitive desires which lead only to resentment, bitterness and violence against ourselves and others. “Come to me and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls.

In a few minutes we will be gathered around this table to break bread. And as we do, we will be seeing our call to life enacted for us. The bread will be placed into our hands as a gift. We do not earn it or control it. We gain nothing and destroy everything if we try to grasp it and keep it for ourselves. I am called to receive the gift of my life and the gifts in my life in the same way – with open hands and a generous heart. The gift is not given for my own greedy consumption. To treat it as such would be to destroy the gift. The gift is given to be broken and shared. “Come to me and do as I do,” Jesus says. “Receive life as a gift, as I do, and offer it to be broken and shared for the life of the world. For this is the yoke that truly fits; the yoke that will feel so light and easy that in taking it on you will find rest for your souls. Come to me. Come to me.”

Nathan gratefully acknowledges that many of the inspirations, ideas and images in this sermon were drawn from materials written or compiled by Paul Nuechterlein on his website: Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary .


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