The Secret that Sinners Know
By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy, and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I must confess; I re-wrote the opening of this sermon yesterday morning at a local coffee shop; doesn’t surprise most of you, I know! Most of my writing happens in a coffee shop! But this sermon opening comes with a story; because, while I was sitting in the corner of Fresh Fields, near their book shelf, a tow-headed two year old, wandered toward me. I notice those things now, you know. I’m going to be a grandpa in December, so two year old tow-heads have arrived on my radar screen!
So this little guy was quietly standing in front of the bookshelf and me, observing. “What’s your name?” I asked. “Jordan.” “Would you like to find a book, Jordan?” I pulled out the brightest, reddest book I could find on the shelf; a book entitled “Corduroy” and handed it to him. “No!” he said, as he took the book from me and flipped in on the floor. He reached for a children’s book about thunderstorms but tossed it on the floor as well. He found a book about a mysterious tadpole, and he flipped that one away, too. Then he discarded “Down by the Bay,” “Winnie the Pooh,” and a book about fireflies. I thought to myself “Wow! Jordan is a very discriminating reader!”
Surrounded by all these brightly colored books, Jordan was unimpressed, still picking through the bookshelf, looking for something more suitable to his tastes. There were more than a dozen books surrounding him on the floor, but when I returned from the restroom, there sat Jordan, curled up in my stuffed chair, looking at a bright red book entitled “Corduroy.”
When I was in youth ministry, I learned a phrase that aptly describes adolescents; “Teen-agers” I was told, “are like small children in a candy store; they don’t know what they want, but they know what they like.” And that’s not a rap on teen-agers, because I have discovered that adults are exactly the same. We pick our way through life, in restaurants, in furniture stores, on car lots, and even among churches, not sure what we’re looking for, but certain that we will know it when we see it.
So it should not surprise us that, in today’s gospel text, Jesus compares his fickle, fussy first-century hearers to spoiled little children who are never quite satisfied with what they have. “With what shall I compare this generation?” Jesus asks, rhetorically. “You are like spoiled children who are never happy with what is set before you. When I am serious, you say I don’t dance. When I am joyful, you say I am not serious. John the Baptist would not eat and drink with you and you called him ‘demon-possessed.’ I freely eat and drink with sinners, but you call me a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of tax collectors.”
The people of Israel didn’t know what they wanted, but they knew what they liked; and they didn’t like John very much, and they didn’t like Jesus at all. It’s because John and Jesus called the people to a life of discipleship. Jesus called them, not to follow a list of 613 picky rules about how to dress, and what to eat, and how to wash their hands, and when to pray. Rather, Jesus called them to a life of loving God and serving people. And when he said “The journey won’t be easy, and the lifestyle won’t always be comfortable,” people distanced themselves from Jesus in the same way my little friend Jordan discarded books; dismissed Jesus because they preferred their rules to God’s roadmap.
If you listened closely to the reading of the Gospel, I wonder if you raised your eyebrows at this statement of Jesus? “I praise you father, that you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to children.” Isn’t that curious? What things? And if something is so important, why would God hide it from anyone? Here’s what I believe;
The Jews were looking for something or someone who would fulfill their need for a Messiah. They thought it would be a mighty king, or a powerful warrior, or deeply religious person who observed every law in the rabbinical code. In truth, they were too pompous, and too proud to recognize that the Savior was right in their midst. He was hidden from their self-righteous eyes. He was too common, too simple, and certainly not religious enough to be THEIR messiah. I have always thought that Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is the perfect allegory for those first-century Jews. The proud ones didn’t see what was in plain sight…but the children did.
“These things” that Jesus was referring to was Jesus himself. The “wise and intelligent ones” were the leaders of the synagogue, and the righteous Pharisees, and the pompous men who followed all the rules and condemned those who did not. And the infants of whom Jesus spoke? They were not necessarily children; rather, they were the sinners who knew that they didn’t belong; the ones who realized that they had broken every one of the 612 Jewish laws. They liked what they saw in Jesus, because he spoke of forgiveness, and offered them a second chance; a life jacket in the midst of a stormy sea. Isn’t it interesting, that common sinful folk knew a secret that was unknown by the brightest, holiest and proudest people in the community? That everybody is a sinner, and that Jesus came to love sinners, and to offer them a second chance.
Paul Tillich was one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, the “father of existential theology” was he. And yet, when he was asked to define what a Christian is, he said “Oh, that’s easy; a Christian is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.”
The Christian Church in the 21st century does not see itself as beggars telling other beggars where to find food. Rather, I fear that we see ourselves as being right. We have the right theology, so that makes the others wrong. We have the right liturgy, or the right political opinions, or our members act in the right way. We’re not beggars! We’re not even sinners! We used to be, but not anymore. And that sort of attitude is not only a myth, but it repels the people whom Jesus wants us to reach out to…the ones who know the secret; that Jesus’ primary purpose in coming to the world was not to tell us to straighten up and fly right. It was to tell us that we were beggars, and he was the food.
Today, I would that we would see ourselves as beggars. With empty hands, we come forward to this altar and confess to God that we’re not righteous and proud, we are sinful and messed up. And the gift we are handed here is proof that God hears the simple prayers of the sinful, and he gives us a second chance. It’s not a secret anymore; it’s the truth. You come. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Copyright 2005 Steven Molin. Used by permission.