Jesus says a great deal in this passage from Matthew. But throughout the passage he is consistent. When people fail to see the amazing blessings that surround them, when they fail to really see it and get it, they are in danger. They are in danger of losing their very souls, not because God will take their souls from them, or punish them for their failure to see, but because in failing to see God in front of them, they fail to truly live in faith, live in connection to the Divine, live in the fullness of life that God wants to give us, chooses to give us, every day. Jesus said, “Woe to you…to Chorazin and to Bethsaida because they didn’t see the miracles that were performed right in front of them.” They did not see them. They did not take them in. The experience of being near and around these miracles, these life changing, wonderful, beautiful experiences of healing and transformation, of God’s wanting the best for God’s people, of God wanting and making wholeness and life happen for people whom everyone else had abandoned or given up on – these experiences did not CHANGE the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida. Witnessing these miracles did not make them want to be the best they could be, did not move them to repentance. They were not changed by witnessing these miracles, which said to Jesus they did not take them in, did not choose to experience God, experience Divine love through these events. And that failure to change leads Jesus to say, ‘woe to you.”
Jesus also compares his generation to what? To whiners. “We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance. We sang a dirge and you did not mourn.” Again, they did not see, and were not moved into action by what Jesus did, or even by what John did. They complained about John because he ate strangely. They complained about Jesus because he didn’t eat strangely. All of these people found ways to not see the blessings that surrounded them. Instead they focused on the problems. They focused on what did not fit into their ideas of what people of God should look like, act like, what they thought people of God should do or be. They failed to see.
Do we do this? Fear can lead us to see and focus on those things that are going wrong. Our human instincts to complain can lead us to focus on things that are not being done the way we want them to, or expect them to be done. We want Jesus to not live it up during his life. We want John to not be “different” or eat strangely. We want things to fit into our ideas of how they are or should be. And if they don’t we complain. Actually, even when they DO live up to our expectations, we also complain. And again, the problem with that is that in focusing on what we are uneasy with, we fail to see the blessings that surround us, we fail to see the good, we fail to see God, we fail to experience God’s love. And WE are lessened by that failure. WE are the ones then who do not experience Jesus in our midst because we are too busy NOT seeing to experience the blessings, love, joy, peace, compassion, peace, and ultimately the GRACE that God offers us every single day.
Rev. Craig Barnes, writes, "… we assume we can make our own lives by the way we construct them for ourselves." Barnes goes on to say this: “Complaining is usually a veiled lament about deeper issues of the soul. Since most people are unaccustomed to exploring the mystery of their own souls, they will often work out their spiritual anxieties by attempting to rearrange something external - like a church's music program. But it doesn't matter how many changes they make to the environment around them. They will never succeed in finding peace for the angst of their soul until they attend directly to it...“
The truth is, we are often guilty of seeing what we know rather than knowing what we see. We often are. And when fear is involved, it is even harder to actually see the blessings God surrounds us with.
About eight years ago now my family went through a very challenging time financially. Mark was out of work and we were trying to support our family of five on my half time pastor salary in the San Francisco Bay Area. We had bought a new house, one with three bedrooms as opposed to the one we had before which had only two bedrooms and was therefore a bit tight for our family of five. But at the last minute in the sale of our old home, the buyers had pulled out. As a result, we were paying two mortgages, again in one of the most expensive areas in the country. Add to that that the shower pan in our new bathroom cracked and we had to replace the entire bathroom, with money we just didn’t have. It was a truly, deeply frightening time. Because of that, complaining was at the top of my list of daily activities. Everywhere I looked and each day there was more to complain about. A child got sick, I left my wallet at the store, Trader Joe's stopped carrying my favorite breakfast cereal – whatever little thing that occurred was just another weight on shoulders that were already carrying far too much. The main character in the book, Life of Pi said, “When you’ve suffered a great deal in life, each additional pain is both unbearable and trifling”. I found this to be absolutely true. It was the little things, the things that I knew were so very small which would send me over the edge during this time. I simply could not bear anything more because I was, deeply frightened. I was reassured by Biblical passages such as we find in the psalms that allow for us to voice and share with God our complaints, our fears, our concerns, with full knowledge that God does indeed hear them, care about them, want us to talk to God about them; and I took full advantage of that to complain loudly and often, to express my fear and to pray, fervently and often for our house to sell, for Mark to find employment, for us to make it through this financially terrifying time.
But as Craig Barnes suggested, looking back, the complaints were all hiding a deeper spiritual issue – and that is that I was living in fear, I was consumed by fear instead of living in faith and trust. Looking back, I can see God’s presence, God’s blessings. Looking back, now that I am beyond that moment of fear or terror, I can see what I could not see then. Looking back I see that we in fact were carried through that time. We had savings that saw us through, and the house sold and Mark found employment right before that savings would have run out. Yes, we used it all. But we had it to use. And we were okay in the end. I can see, looking back, that we were surrounded also by love and fellowship of people who would have been there for us had things become desperate. We were held through this time by friends and family who expressed their care in ways both “normal” and amazing. There was one day in particular. I had finally hit the wall. I was utterly terrified. Driving home from work late one night, a week or so before Christmas, worrying about how I would buy anything for my children this year to give them for Christmas, I found myself praying for a miracle. “God, we just need a miracle. We need to get through this, we need it to all be okay. We just need some kind of miracle.” The next morning I got up as I had for several weeks, grumpy, scared and tired, when suddenly I heard a yell from the front of the house. I ran to see what was the matter, thinking to myself, “What now, O God? Can this really get any harder?” But when I ran to the front porch, what I found was a six foot tall Christmas tree addressed to us, with a little note that just said, “Merry Christmas.” While my children squealed with delight, I myself was simply stunned. Was this the miracle I had been waiting for? It certainly wasn’t what I had in mind. But since it did a lot to cheer my children, it set the day in a good way. We got on with our day and I took Aislynn to her little community center class that morning. But when I got to class, there was a note pinned to the attendance sheet asking me to come to the office. I went to the office and the secretary started to tell me there was a problem with my class registration. I was beginning to get all worked up when suddenly she reached behind her desk and with a huge grin pasted on her face, she pulled out a huge bag of presents for our family from “Santa Claus.” At first I thought it must be a mistake, but each present was addressed to a specific member of our family. For the second time that day, we had been given an unexpected and joyful gift. This one was more practical, too, for it contained things like a gift card to the local grocery store and pajamas for all the kids. I was again stunned, and to this day cannot figure out who this gift could possibly have been from. But still, an answer to my prayer for a miracle? We came home from class, with my confusion moving into a sense of awe. I sat on the couch with Aislynn and for the first time ever in her 20 months of age (at that time), she reached up, held my face in both of her little hands, and said, “Mama, I love you.” And in those words, in that miracle, I beheld the presence of God. It was with her words that I knew the miracle I had prayed for, had in fact, taken place. Again, not what I had asked for. It wasn’t a job for Mark. It wasn’t the sale of our old house. It wasn’t someone volunteering to fix our bathroom issues. But instead it was an overflowing sign of love – from God, from God’s people, a love that has, and continues to sustain us through the hard times because the hard times are always there if we focus on them. And the love is always there to sustain us, if we can just see it when we need it. Miracles, are all around us, every day, if we allow ourselves to see them, if we can face the spiritual issues such as fear that prevent us from seeing, if we pray and open our eyes to seeing God because God is there, all the time, with blessings in abundance.
A terrible storm hit the town in which David lived. Safe in his own home, after a time, he looked out the window and saw that the street was beginning to flood. Being a man of great faith, he prayed, “Dear God, I know that you will save your faithful servant. Show your glory by saving me now!” As he prayed, a neighbor in a large pick-up truck drove by. He shouted to David, “Hey the water is rising. Let me give you a ride out!” “No,” David called back, “God will save me.”
The water continued rising and began to flood his home. He was forced to go up to the second floor of his house. But he continued to pray, “God save me from this flood. I know that you will rescue your servant.” Soon a police officer came by in a row-boat and called to David, “Climb into my boat! You must leave your house. The flood is worsening!” But again, David called back, “God will rescue me. I am not afraid!”
Still the water continued to rise until David was forced to climb up on the roof of his house. Still, in faith, he prayed, “God, the water is getting even higher. But I am a man of faith and I know you will save me.” At this point a helicopter came by and the coast guard threw down a ladder, yelling, “You must climb up the ladder! Your house will soon be underwater.” But David called back, “God will rescue me and all the world will see the saving value of faith!”
Well, unfortunately, the water continued to rise and David eventually drowned. In heaven, before his maker, David demanded an explanation, “Did you not promise that all we asked for in prayer would be given to us? I prayed and prayed that you would rescue me but you let me drown!”
God responded, “I sent a car, a boat and a helicopter. What else did you want?”
In today’s passage from Matthew Jesus challenges us to put aside our expectations, our fears, our complaints and to look instead for the good, for God, for God’s love that surrounds us. But the Good News is that Jesus also knows that isn’t easy for us, this people of God, to always do successfully. So even after we are scolded for our complaining and scolded for failing to see the miracles that surround us and allow them to change us, deeply, from within, Jesus ends the passage with these words of reassurance, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” When we can’t let go, we can turn to God with our fears, with our complaints, with our burdens. Jesus will help us to carry them because that’s what God does. And in God’s loving arms, we will find rest. Amen.