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About Cities and Easy Yokes

July 4, 2014

Matthew 11:16-30, Romans 7:13-25city-inside-head

16“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

 I love this metaphor for Jesus interaction with his society, or, as he puts it with ‘this generation’. They don’t want any surprises! They want the apocalypse now and they want it according to plan. The kingdom of God will be a matter of the messiah playing according to their rules. They play the flute and Jesus dances to their tune.

Jesus then does a rant – a rant against cities that failed to repent – Chorazin and Bethsaida. My first reaction is one of astonishment. Jesus expected cities to repent!? We expect individuals to repent but not cities. Jesus seems to expect both. It reminds me of the parable of the Sheep and the Goats when ‘all the nations of the earth are gathered’. It is about the judgment on nations not individuals. It is about how nations treated the weakest among them (the hungry, those in prison).

Have you ever wondered how Jesus expected Chorazin and Bethsaida to repent? … Do you imagine Jesus as some kind of Billy Graham with altar calls? Or perhaps you imagine him doing submissions to the city council on behalf of the kingdom of God, to make sure it’s in the ‘long term plan’.

Actually both of these ideas are very modern ways of thinking. Jesus preached a kingdom not an individualised gospel… but he also didn’t preach a bureaucratic kingdom. It’s very hard with modern minds to rethink some of these things.

The reality is cities and nations are not just buildings, for all their distortion, they are forms of human community. We don’t just live in cities. Cities live in us. To coin a cliche: You might be able to take the person out of Dunedin, but its another matter to take Dunedin out of the person.

At this point I want to segway into the text from Romans. I think this is what Paul is hinting at when he tells of his struggles. He was part of the ‘generation’ that Jesus is complaining about. The generation who plays the flute, but finds that Jesus does not dance to their tune.

Paul has been formed from childhood by a flute tune that clashes with Jesus one. And Jesus has interrupted this pattern, this city within him. And now he sees Jesus as the fulfilment of the Law of God. He delights in this law, he says. He wants to be a follower of Jesus who loved God with all this being and his neighbour (including his enemies) as himself. But this is not automatic. If there is anything that is automatic it is the city that still lives in him, in his habits and his pattern and his behaviour.

Do you relate to this?…

For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. …For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 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.

 Sometimes I get the impression that people think that doing the right thing is just a matter of knowing what it is and wanting to do it. And that those who struggle like Paul did, as somehow mentally unbalanced. But what if this is normal life for a Christian… someone who has a city inside them and yet whose life has been interrupted by Jesus.

How many of our actions are not what we really want to do?

I don’t want to eat that much?

I don’t want to watch so much television?

I don’t want to buy products that are traded unjustly to the detriment of people in poverty in china or cambodia.

I don’t want to use so much carbon or drive my car so often

I don’t want to drink too much alcohol

I don’t want to be prejudiced against certain types of people

After this amazingly modern description of psychological struggle he is caught up in, Paul concludes with these words. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Let’s just sit with that phrase for a moment. Is it just a familiar phrase that has drained of meaning for our lives? Or is it a truth that resonates deep within us?

Just when you think it’s a lost cause, Paul gives us these words to reflect on. It is God, through Jesus Christ who will rescue us from ‘this body of death’, from all the habits of mind that bind us, the addictions, all the social situations of injustice that seem to give us no other options for our life… in short: The city that possesses us will not win the victory! There is a much greater reality for Paul… which, for a while he loses sight of as he describes his struggle.

It’s easy to lose sight of this fact isn’t it? God, through Jesus, is rescuing us from this ‘body of death’.

Let’s go back to Jesus, ranting against the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida. For Jesus things take a positive turn at the end of the reading. He says:

“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;

 Infants… the little and powerless of the world. In contrast to the establishment, the city planners of Chorazin and Bethsaida, the truth about God has come to earth among the little ones who gather around Jesus. To them he says:

“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; 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.”

 To the workers on the borderlands of the establishment: I will give you rest. Not rest in contrast to work, but rest in the midst of work. Restful work.

Notice what Jesus doesn’t say. He doesn’t say Come to me all you that are weary and I will take your burden off you and release you from your yokes. He doesn’t say, you tired people who have worked all your life can now take a break from the kingdom of God and do something for yourself. He says, the kingdom of God is work that is restful. It is Sabbath work. It’s an incredible lightness of being. Take my yoke upon you.

Thanks be to God, who, in Jesus Christ, brings us to let go of the city that controls our hearts and replaces that city with the joy and vision and work of the kingdom of God.

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