Sunday July 9, 2017
11:00 am - Saint Thomas Church
Preacher: Fr Turner
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
I am having a sense of déjà vu today! I went to bed last night having just read an email from the person who has accepted my invitation to preach on Good Friday next year. When I walked to the sacristy this morning I saw the Altar Guild putting the purple Lenten veils on the crosses; “My!” I thought, “I know Saint Thomas Church loves Holy Week…but in July?” (They are making new veils for next year). Then, today’s first reading may have also got you in to the Holy Week mood for it is a reading we usually hear on Palm Sunday.
The prophet Zechariah was probably born in Babylon during the exile - remember how Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and took away so many people, leaving only the poor and the sick behind? Many years later, when King Darius allowed peoples to return home, Zechariah, a son of a priestly family, and Haggai returned with the first wave. It must have been a sorry sight to have returned to Jerusalem after the exile. One might think that returning home after an exile would have been thrilling but it was quite the reverse; the scriptures tell us that after the long journey the people were demoralized. If you want an image to put in your heads, think of Beirut during the civil war or, more recently, Mosul, with people desperately trying to live in pitiful conditions.
The prophets Haggai and Zechariah, understood that worship needed to be restored and that the Temple had to be re-built but Nehemiah and Ezra tell us that there was division among the people and resistance to re-building even the wall let alone the Temple.
Zechariah, who begins the apocalyptic literature of the latter part of the Old Testament looks to the future and to the restoration of Israel. Who can finally beat down oppression and violence; how can we rid the world of enslavement and war? Astonishingly, Zechariah describes a king who will come in humility; the king will come riding on a donkey. From apparent weakness will come true power; the war horses and the weapons of war that had dominate the region for so long would be destroyed but through the example of humble service. Zechariah encourages the people who were once prisoners by referring to them as prisoners of hope.
In Britain and France, recently, there have been a number of terrorist attacks designed to cause fear and unrest. They were followed by one of the worst tower block fires in history. Remarkably, far from feeling demoralized, communities have been stronger than ever – a sense of purpose has arisen out of evil and terrible tragedy. Last week I quoted from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon in Southwark Cathedral. It is reminiscent of Zechariah’s prophecy. He said, “Hope flowers in the desert of suffering when it is watered by communities of love, for through them Christ comes, light dawns, and lives shattered in grief and pain find astonishingly that they will live again.”
And when Christ came to Jerusalem as King he came riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. He came in humility and he gave examples of how humble service can defeat the arrogance of the proud. Many a time Jesus had taught his disciples about the power of humility by taking a child and setting the child in their midst; by touching the leper; by forgiving the sins of the woman who wept at his feet; by feasting with sinners; by washing the disciples’ feet. Now, in a beautiful prayer, reminiscent of the great High Priestly Prayer in John’s Gospel, Jesus brings this model of humility and service to the very heart of his relationship with the Father: “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; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”
The Lord shows, yet again, that humble service and an openness to God’s presence in the ordinariness of our lives can change everything for, through that kind of humility, comes a deeper relationship with God, which is the very reason God sent his Son into the world. And what is the result of a more perfect relationship with the Father? Rest. Rest in the Father’s love and drawn there through the ministry of Jesus Christ: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” In a world that seems ever more torn about by faction and violence; by people wanting their own way; by loud and angry rhetoric; by displays of power and excess; these words cut to the heart: “I will give you rest,” says Jesus.
Now what is this rest? Tomorrow I am on vacation and, for some of us, vacation means doing absolutely nothing for a while. But I don’t think the rest that Jesus offers is a vacation from the monotony of our daily lives; neither is it a fantasy world where you can ignore what’s going on around you. Rest is important in the scriptures and in the first account of creation in the Book of Genesis, the seventh Day is a day when God rested. But it is still a day of the week – still part of God’s creative act – the creation was very good and God rested to enjoy that goodness. But the result of the fall meant that humankind was never able to fully enter into that rest and enjoy that perfect relationship with God – how things were meant to be. Speaking to Adam about the consequences of sin, God says that his life will be filled with toil and sweat.
Now we return to Zechariah and a demoralized and exhausted people of God who had to be cajoled to sweat and toil to rebuild what had been destroyed. But the King would come, humble and riding on a donkey to a people yet again enslaved by a foreign power, and he would offer rest; through opening his arms of love in the most humble of embraces when they were stretched out on the hard wood of the cross; dying for those he had come to save; and to be buried and laid in a grave on the Sabbath day – the day that God rested – so that on the first day of the week a new creation would unfold in his resurrection life flooding the world with hope. “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;” says Zechariah, “today I declare that I will restore to you double.” Jesus offers you and me rest; rest in God’s very presence; a reversal of the effects of the fall; a pledge of what is to come; the restoration of how things should be - a new creation! The birth of a new people of hope! Access to the Father’s love.
In what is probably the culmination of apocalyptic literature in the Bible, the Book of Revelation, we read how rest in the Father’s love will be perfect but connected to our lives on earth: “I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.” (Revelation 14:13).
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” says the Lord.