Nothing makes any sense. In our reading from Deuteronomy for today, God explains to the Israelites why He’s leading them into the promised land. Or, more to the point, He explains to them why He’s not doing so. It’s not because of your own righteousness, He tells them. You are a stiff-necked, stubborn people, He reminds them. You are grumblers and idolaters, disobedient sinners who despise my gifts. You are, in fact, no more righteous than the wicked nations of Canaan that I’m destroying because of their wickedness. I’m destroying them because of their sin and I’m giving you their land in spite of your sin. That doesn’t make any sense.
Likewise, in our reading from Matthew 11, Jesus responds to the crowd with a question that doesn’t make any sense. After making it clear that He’s not going to use His miraculous power to spring John from prison, John asks them “what did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” In other words, “John wasn’t some soft, withering voice who trembled at those in authority and who didn’t have the strength to rebuke kings. He was a prophet and he preached like a prophet. He was always going to be put to death and I’m not going to stop that.”
Ok, but why? Until the last day, death and the devil are always going to try to devour the faithful, but that didn’t stop Jesus from casting out demons and raising people from the dead. So why didn’t He come to John’s aid, especially when, as Jesus himself says, “no one born of woman was greater than John?” Nothing makes any sense.
But the reason nothing makes any sense is because we’re staring into the hidden will of God, trying to find answers. We’re asking God to answer questions He’s told us He won’t answer and then becoming despondent when He remains silent. Why does God destroy some wicked and not others? Why does He rescue some of the righteous and seemingly abandon others? Why do some believe and not others? Why are some cured of disease and not others? Why, God why?
But as Christians, we are not called to make sense of God’s will. We’re called to find peace in it. As Christians, it’s not our job to make God speak a word He won’t utter, but to hear and believe the word He has spoken.
And that word tells you that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, gave Him to forgive the world, to conquer the world, and to bring about a new heavens and new earth where these questions about inconsistent sorrow will never plague us again because sorrow will never plague us again. The word of God tells you that when you were a sinner who deserved nothing but eternal condemnation, Jesus Christ reached His nail pierced hands into this world of filth and pulled you out. He washed you in His righteous blood and made you worthy to live with Him in His kingdom forever. Trust this promise, and the day will come when all the inexplicable, inconsistent, nonsensical mysteries of this life make sense. Trust this promise, and you will see that the once incomprehensible will of God was always ordered, always perfect, and always good.
A major theme in the Gospels is that those who should recognize that Jesus is the Son of God don’t while those who shouldn’t do. We saw this with our Gospel reading on Sunday, when the nine Jewish lepers don’t return to thank Christ after they’re healed but the one Samaritan leper does. We see this in the faith of the Syrophoenician woman and the Roman Centurion whose faith astounds Jesus. And we see this in our words from Matthew 11 today, when Jesus rebukes the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum for refusing to hear His call to repentance. If the works He did there had been done in the wicked Phoenician cities of Tire and Sidon, those miserable sinners who had none of God’s promises would have nevertheless heard His promises and lived. If those works had been done amongst the beasts of Sodom, they would have turned from their sin and trusted in Christ.
This is, of course, strange and ironic. It’s counterintuitive that those who are the closest to God are the ones who can’t see him, while those who are miles away see him clearly. But, in a way, it makes sense. The devil wants to take away what is most precious to God. And what could be more precious to a Father than the love of His own children. So the devil pumps self-righteousness and pride in the hearts of those who should recognize that they have been saved by grace alone. He convinces those who have received God’s mercy that this was payment for their holiness.
This is why, for many of us, the people who have been the most hateful and heartless to us in our lives have been our fellow churchgoers, people who spoke the words of confession and absolution with us. People who sang hymns with us and prayed with us. People who heard God’s word but, through their pride, saw it as a weapon to wield against us instead of a feast to share with us. And this is also why Satan has filled us with that heartbreaking cruelty, that blasphemous selfishness. This is why, for those in our lives, the cruelest things we’ve said and done to people have been wrapped in the name of God.
So let us repent and hear the rebuke that Jesus speaks to the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida and Capernaum. Let us run to Christ with the former Muslims and Hindus, the former tax collectors and prostitutes. Let us not grieve our Lord by keeping our distance from the word we’ve always known while those who knew nothing of His promises rejoice to see Him fulfill them.
Together, with repentant sinners from every context and corner of the world, let us come find peace and relief in the arms of the Savior who has conquered the devil and all his corruption and lies. “Come unto me all who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus tells us. So let us do exactly that. Let us escape the slavery of self-righteousness and find rest in the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Why are the Pharisees angry at Jesus and his disciples in our reading from Matthew today? Well, on a kind of academic level, the Pharisees are angry that Jesus and His disciples are disregarding the tradition of the elders concerning how far God’s command to rest on the Sabbath extended. They’re angry that Jesus and His disciples don’t think the command was so severe that it forbade them from doing what they’re doing. But, when you take a step back and look at things on a simpler level, it’s quite strange because, well, what are the disciples doing? They’re plucking grain from the fields and consuming it on the Sabbath. They’re eating. What do the Pharisees think God wants them to do? Starve?
Likewise, the Pharisees also get angry when Jesus proceeds to start healing people on the Sabbath. Again, in their minds, Jesus is working, which means He’s not truly committed to honoring the Sabbath. Amazing, isn’t it? The Pharisees think God would rather withered hands stay withered on the seventh day.
In all of this, we see every bit of false teaching and hatred that the Pharisees exhibit throughout the Gospels boiled down to its essence. The Sabbath exists for you to prove yourself to God, a day when God demands that you prove how profoundly devoted they are to Him by rejecting His daily bread, His love and salvation. For the Pharisees, you don’t exist to receive God’s love. You exist to earn God’s love, to build up the righteousness He demands of you.
So don’t listen to the lies of the Pharisees. Listen to the truth that flows from the mouth of Jesus Christ. God gave the Sabbath as a day for resting, not as a day for testing. Man was not made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man, given to man so that when he rested from his labor, he could have a foretaste of the eternal rest he’d have in the blood of Christ. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. The Lord did not create you to spend your life inventing new commandments to prove your devotion to Him, but to spend eternity receiving His devotion, His love, His mercy. And Christ has given that devotion, that love, that sabbath rest to you. In His death and in His glorious resurrection, Jesus Christ forgave all your sins, covered you in His perfect obedience to the commandments, and gave you the right to find eternal rest in the arms of God. That’s what Israel’s Sabbath day promised you. And that’s what Christ’s resurrection on the 8th day has given you.
In our reading from Deuteronomy today, God commands the Israelites to purify the land they’ll be receiving by destroying all the places where the previous inhabitants worshiped their false gods. Tear down their altars, God tells them. Dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire, chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their names out of that place.
Why does God command this? For two reasons. First, because idols are like viruses. If you don’t eradicate them, they’ll spread and mutate and pour out an endless supply of death and suffering. You have to eradicate the very memory of these false gods, lest your people give into their sinful impulses, become fascinated by the novel religious practices of the land’s conquered people, and then five seconds later, find themselves sacrificing their children to their own versions of these false gods. That’s the first reason. Very much a Law reason.
But the second reason is a Gospel reason. God commands Israel to destroy every trace of the land’s false gods because He wants the very land of Israel to reflect His love for you. God wants this earthly kingdom to paint a picture of the eternally pure kingdom He’s going to build for you through His Son.
When Jesus Christ shed His blood upon the cross, He destroyed every idolatrous sin of your heart, every iniquity you forged when you put your fear, love, or trust in something other than the one true God. Through His blood, Jesus Christ tore down the altars you built to your pride. He dashed in pieces the pillars of your lust. He burned the Asherim of your anger with the fire of His forgiveness. He chopped down the carved images you made of your slander. With His dying breath, the Savior named Jesus destroyed the names of your idols, erased them from existence, blotted them out of the memory of His Father in heaven.
And when you enter the kingdom where Jesus now reigns, you will see that land purified. No record of your sins will be found. Not one ounce of idolatrous rubble will be present in His kingdom, the kingdom where you will feast on His love forever. Because when God destroys sin, He destroys it all. Every atom of it.
God commanded His people to erase every vestige of Canaan’s sin–to show you what it would look like when Jesus erased every vestige of yours. And He has.
Whenever actors get too political or sanctimonious, we often mock them by dismissing their profession. To be an actor is to be someone who gets paid to pretend, we often say. And while this may be fun to say, it’s not quite true. Whether it’s a movie or tv show or stage play, it’s true that the various forms of drama are not quite real. But they’re also not pretend. Drama is an artistic depiction of real ideas, whether those ideas are historical events, human emotions, or human experiences. A play depicts the thing but a play is not the thing. And because of this, a play can only take you so far if you need access to the actual thing.
In many ways, this is how the Law of Moses functioned. The Law of Moses governed the way the Israelites worshiped. It governed the way they ordered their year, ordered the way they ate and dressed and practiced justice. And in all of its commands, God was commanding the Israelites to take part in the production of the promise, the production that proclaimed how He would one day send His Son into the world to die for our sins and rise for our justification. Whenever they sacrificed their lambs and circumcised their sons, whenever they avoided the unclean and were cleansed of their sins in the Temple, the Israelites were participating in the Passion Play before the Passion.
But because they’re not the real thing, plays can only take you so far. A stage actor may dress like Abraham Lincoln and talk like him. But he’s not actually assassinated when he falls to the ground on stage because he’s not actually Abraham Lincoln. And in the same spirit, there’s a reason the Israelites are commanded not to consume the blood of the animals they eat. Because the blood of sheep or goats may point forward to the blood of God’s Lamb, the blood of Jesus. But it’s not the blood of Jesus. And only that blood can save. Therefore, take part in the play. Play your part. But don’t consume the lifeblood that cannot save you. Consome only the lifeblood that can.
And on the night when He was betrayed, Jesus invited us to consume that saving blood. On the night when Jesus took the cup and said “this is my blood, shed for you forgiveness of sins,” He was telling us that the time had now come for us to finish playing our parts in the pageant about the thing and to receive the real thing. The time had now come for His people to put away the props of animal blood and to consume His holy blood, the same blood that would destroy your sins forever the next day upon Calvary’s cross.
So this Sunday, come consume it. Come eat Christ’s flesh. Come drink His blood. Come consume the Savior that was promised in the flesh and blood of the Passover lamb. Leave the production behind and receive the eternal mercy and forgiveness, love and salvation that pours out for you in the real thing, the body and blood of God’s only begotten Son.