Readings:Genesis 24:34-38;42-49;58-67, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19;25-30
“He’s a nice man, a very nice man”. That was the catch phrase of an advertisement for breakdown cover a few (probably many) years ago. The idea that “nice” is something to aspire to is probably quite close to society’s view of the perfect clergy or other church leader. We don’t want them to be too controversial or make us too uncomfortable. We want them to reassure, to be beside us when things are a bit tough and generally be inoffensive. For many the idea of a “perfect” Christian is someone who gets along with everyone and is generally a “very nice person”.
But what we read in the Gospel today is all about not conforming to society’s view of “nice”. At its heart here is a contrast between John the Baptist whose ascetic lifestyle and call to repentance rang a chord but perhaps wasn’t a lifestyle the people really wanted for themselves. And on the other hand, we have Jesus who, let’s face it, wasn’t exactly the sort of man you wanted your nice daughter to bring home; plucking grain on the sabbath, associating with sinners, touching lepers and even getting along with those hated instruments of Roman rule, the tax collectors! Let’s face it, neither John nor Jesus were what you might call “nice”.
But, to be honest, that’s not our calling either. We are called to stand up for God in the here and now. To stand up against sin, to seek out and follow what is right. Sometimes that is tough, sometimes it makes us unpopular, sometimes we will get it wrong, sometimes we will hurt people, even people dear to us. That’s not nice, but it may be the right thing to do.
The difficulty of course, is knowing what the right thing is. Paul wrestles with this in his letter to Romans, a challenging read. Perhaps we can seek to distance our own person by thinking of this as an autobiographical treatise. Or maybe it’s about the state of all of us; just replace ‘I’ with ‘one’ and read it again. Does that apply to you because it certainly applies to me? Do you struggle with sin? Because I certainly do. Is it the law that makes me sin because it points out what is wrong, or is it truthfully me that makes me sin?
So, I am sorry to prick any faltering illusions in your mind, I am NOT a “nice” man. But I strive to be a loyal follower of the Gospel. There are many times and myriad ways when I fall short, mainly because I am conceited enough to think I know best when often I don’t. But there are also times when I can see clearly and need to take a stand against things that are wrong. And that is sometimes not thought to be “nice” either. We do spend a lot of our time avoiding the tough things, fearful of the consequences perhaps; maybe seeking the reassurance of not being alone.
Currently we hear a lot about Black lives matter and there are people seeking many different forms of protest in support (and indeed counter-protest against it!). Some forms of protest appear downright foolish, perhaps thuggery. But to me the true courage is those who stand out on their own. I am minded of Rosa Parks in the US all those years ago – on her own protesting on a bus. I think also of the picture of the Black Lives Matter protestor carrying an injured, white, counter-protestor. Both of these are, I think, examples of doing the “right” thing even if, in the surroundings of the time it was not the “nice” thing, not the expected thing, to do.
So, I can relate to Paul’s internal struggles as he describes them in today’s passage. I can understand where he comes from. But for Paul, there is nothing haphazard or careless in his words. His words are deliberate, measured and written with an effect in mind. Paul wants us to recognise this struggle, Paul wants us to accept that this struggle is there within us all. Paul doesn’t want us to meet society’s expectations and be “nice”. Paul wants us to live up to Jesus’ expectations. But there’s a snag – we aren’t up to it!
However, as well as a snag there is a help, more than a help, there is rescue at hand. Rescue through the risen Lord.
And rescue doesn’t come like children squabbling, rescue doesn’t come through strict obedience to the law, in all its detailed requirements. Rescue doesn’t come by being “nice”. Rescue comes by coming to Jesus with all our sins and weaknesses; all our doubts and imperfections; all the hurt we have inflicted and received. Rescue comes by bringing all our burdens, by bringing the things that grind us down and wear us out. Rescue comes by swapping our yoke, self-inflicted by all that we do and say, for Jesus’ yoke.
We are promised that Jesus yoke is easy and the burden light. This is not because we will instantly become “nice” but quite the contrary. Jesus yoke is heavy from the world’s perspective, but it is light because Jesus does most of the carrying for us! Jesus will give us the peace to be quiet and humble in our hearts no matter what is going on within us and around us.
The Christian life is not easy. The Christian life is not “nice”. The Christian life does not mean we will always be right. The Christian life does not give us the right to be arrogant or self-centred. The Christian life will be a constant struggle to find the right thing to do (or not do!). The Christian life is doing this at home, at work, at play, as well as at church.
I for one do not find this easy, far from it. I know I make mistakes. But I seek to do the right thing not the “nice” thing. I seek to have integrity rather than curry favour. I seek (and fail!) to do this in humility and love. But I am supported and sustained in that sometimes it is not me carrying Jesus’ yoke but Jesus’ yoke holding me up. So, I will go to Jesus as I am, heavy laden, and I will lay my-self and my sins before him. I will trust in the answer Paul gives to his question “who will rescue me…”
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”