Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, 17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” 25 At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
8 The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. 10 All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you. 11 They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, 12 to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. 13 Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. 14 The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.
15 I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16 Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17 But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
This has been a bit of a divided week. In the midst of 4th of July celebrations – going to the lake, vacations, watching fireworks and all of that, some of our congregation members have going through what I can only describe as a hellish experience.
A former member, Abi Christianson, a 3-year old, and one of the first children I baptized here was rushed to the hospital this past week with difficulty breathing, and she spent much of this week in a medically induced coma, so as to recover from an infection that obstructs your breathing. As I understand, there were many frightening moments for the family, and many of us were praying for her and a full recovery. And I’m glad to say that she is doing much better.
On top of that, other members spent parts of this past week grieving the death of their 22-year old friend, Justin, who died from injuries due to an ATV accident. And then just last night, I heard that yet another young man in our community, Colton Squires, died yesterday morning in a car accident.
Like I said, it has been a bit of a divided week – joy and celebration, mixed with profound fear and grief. And in the midst of all of this, I received an email, where I was confronted with the very real and honest question: Pastor Jon, how do you keep believing in God when God lets terrible things happen to the best people?
And really this is THE question of all time, isn’t it? The question that passes through the lips of all people. But especially the lips of Abi’s friends and family, and Justin’s friends and family. Especially them. How do you keep believing in God when God lets terrible things happen to the best people?
And then I read the Psalm for today, 8 The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made… The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. 14 The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.
This is a psalm that is all about praise. And it is a psalm that applauds God for God’s magnificent management of the world. And once again, I felt divided. Because on the one hand, in light of Abi’s recovery, I wanted to say, “Yes! The Lord IS gracious and merciful. The Lord IS good to all. The Lord does uphold those who are falling and raises up those who are bowed down!” But then I read it in light of Justin’s unexpected death, and I could barely get through it without rolling my eyes. The Lord is merciful and gracious….the Lord is good to all? The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down? Really? I couldn’t help but wonder how Justin’s parents and friends would hear that text. And I can only imagine that those would be extremely painful words to hear.
How do you keep believing in God when God lets terrible things happen to the best people?
It is a question that invites us to wonder how it is that God is active in this world. What role does God have in what happens in our lives? Is God outside of the world, sitting on a throne, directing all that happens in the world like a puppet master? Is everything that happens the result of God causing them? Did God cause the infection in Abi’s airway? Did God heal the infection in Abi’s airway? Did God cause the ATV accident? Did God willingly choose not to save Justin from those injuries? Is God in control of everything or are there things that are, perhaps, out of God’s control?
These are the questions that have haunted humanity for thousands of years. And in the end, I think we all will have to come to our own belief and understanding. And I am not naïve enough to think that one sermon can solve this problem. But I think there are some things that can help guide us as we think through such questions.
For example, in the reading from Romans, we heard Paul confess what is perhaps the simplest explanation of the human condition. He says, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
Isn’t that so true? Have you ever experienced that, where you don’t do what you want to do, but you end up doing the very thing you hate to do? As a pastor, I get to provide pre-marital counseling for couples that are getting married. A couple of years ago, I spoke with a couple and the topic of pornography came up and the man said the very thing that Paul says. He said, “I do not believe pornography is right or okay, and yet I find myself so drawn in by it and I don’t know what to do.” So often we do the very thing we hate. And we don’t do the very thing we wish we did.
Now, notice what Paul says: I do not understand my own actions. Paul doesn’t say, “I don’t understand the actions God makes me do.” No, they are Paul’s actions. And so the first thing we learn is that we have some responsibility and some choice in what happens in our life and in the world. And might we say that our actions are outside of God’s control? That God has graciously and lovingly given us freedom to act, and as a result God has given up some control over the world? Without such freedom, we would simply be slaves to God, wouldn’t we?
And I think we can even see this in the Psalm. Notice how at the end of the Psalm it says, The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. It does not say that the Lord upholds all who the Lord caused to fall, or that the Lord raises up all who the Lord bowed down. No, but that the Lord upholds those who are falling and raises up those who are bowed down. It is more a matter of fact. People will fall. People will bow. It is not God allowing it or making it happen… it just is. As they say, stuff just happens sometimes.
Finally, as Christians, we trust that Christ is God in human form. Jesus says, “If you have seen me, then you have seen God.” That Jesus is what God is like in human flesh. So we could say that God is Christ-like and always has been Christ-like.
In our gospel for today, Christ says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
We learn that Jesus, and therefore God, longs to draw those who are weary to God’s self. That God wants to provide rest for those who are carrying heavy burdens. That’s what God is like! And so when tragedy strikes, we must look for those places. The places where the weary are comforted and the burdened are given rest. We look to those places and say, “That is God. That is where God acts!” We don’t point to the ATV accident. We don’t point to the airway infection and say, “That’s God.” We don’t look for where God causes weariness, but we look for where God comforts it. We don’t look for where God is giving heavy burdens, but for where God is taking them away. And we proclaim, “That is God at work in the world. Not the other thing.”
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.
Did you know that there are two kinds of yolks that can be used to carry the weight of something? There are single yolks and there are shared yolks. The single yolks work well and are quite efficient. By placing a long yolk across the shoulders, much weight can be carried from the buckets that hang at each end. Now, while one can carry a great load that way, the downfall is the creature tires quite easily and must rest more often.
Shared yolks on the other hand work differently. For one thing, it requires twice as many creatures. But when the creatures are paired well, the two can work all day without tiring. Because with a shared yolk, one can rest a little, while the other pulls. They can take turns bearing the brunt of the load; they can cover for each other without ever laying their burden down because their yolk is shared. Not to mention the fact that they have company all day long and when the day is done both may be tired, but neither is exhausted, because they are a team.
Jesus invites those who are weary and heavy burdened to take Jesus’ yolk upon them. And it is one of those double yolks. Meaning that God comes right besides us. God yolks God’s self to us when we are weary and heavy laden. So as to help share the load. So as to not leave us alone. Because sometimes loneliness can be the worst part. But also to lead us and guide us and teach us how to move and pull through such difficult times in life.
Now, there is no doubt in my mind that it may take God a very, very long time to comfort the weariness of Justin’s family and friends. In all reality, it very well maybe that they are not fully comforted and the burden may never be fully lifted until they meet again someday in God. But I trust that God is already working on them and within this situation to bring comfort and rest to such grief burdened souls.
As we struggle to believe in God when such terrible things happen, may the image of God that we carry with us be influenced by what we learned from Paul – that God has lovingly and graciously shared power with us, which means we have a role and a responsibility in what happens in the world. And that the foundation of our faith is that God is always, always Christ-like, meaning that God’s primary concern is to comfort weariness, not cause it. And that to lift heavy-burdens, not to give them.
And with those things in mind, perhaps we might come to a place where the words of Psalm 145 really can speak truth to us – The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made… The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds. 14 The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.
May it be so. AMEN