God’s Amazing Free Gift
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Growing up I loved to play baseball. One summer when I was about 12 or 13, I was old enough to play in the Babe Ruth League, a step up from Little League. I knew I could make the team and wanted the chance to show my stuff. But for whatever reason, the coach was gracious enough that we didn’t even need to try out. Everyone made the team without having to earn it. This would have been good news for me if the sport had been soccer or something, but baseball…I was good at baseball and I wanted to earn my spot on the team.
Feeling the need to earn our spot on God’s team is a common mistake many religious people make. In today’s Gospel, Jesus confronts this idea and shows the religious leaders of his time that God is not interested in patting people on the back who think they’re better than others or who think they’ve earned a reward.
Jesus begins by calling out the religious leaders of his generation for their rejection of God’s messengers. They saw John the Baptist who was disciplined and fasted, who didn’t drink alcohol and lived a strenuous life in the wilderness. He practiced a very disciplined spirituality, and they criticized him for being too strict. Then they saw Jesus who certainly had a deep, genuine spirituality in his private life—but in his public ministry ate at banquets and drank wine with tax collectors and sinners. And they criticized him for being too lenient.
As Bible scholar Frederick Bruner wrote: the Pharisees see John as “too alarmist…too little sense of humor, too little polish, too little balance. So he is not taken seriously.” Meanwhile, “Jesus is too social, too ‘common,’ does not appear spiritual enough…does not fast regularly…and seems to lack either the discrimination or moral resolve to separate himself from Israel’s inferior [people].”
Yet, Jesus said, wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. Earlier Jesus said “You will know them by their fruits” which appears to have the same meaning. It’s a way of saying that even if something doesn’t look right to you, pay attention to the outcome it leads to.
Then Jesus offers a prayer to God, thanking the Father for hiding things from the wise and intelligent and revealing them to infants. I remember reflecting on this verse when I was on a weekend retreat as a theology major in college. I greatly appreciated the call to humility the Bible verse offered: “I thank you Father Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to infants…” I journaled about the verse that it’s not my theology major or seminary education that makes me acceptable to God or worthy of love. In fact, if I believe those things make me more worthy, then they actually get in the way of my relationship with God. Because the thought of needing to be worthy is actually something that draws us away from God. Especially when we think we’re worthy and others are not.
That’s what the religious leaders of Jesus’ day struggled with. And that’s honestly what most religious people of every time and place have always struggled with. The idea that we need to earn our way to God. That we need to prove ourselves. That we need to do something to show we deserve God’s love. And even if we’re from a Lutheran tradition that’s very clear that it’s all about grace and that God’s love is a free gift, there’s still that part of us that wants to earn it. That insists it must be about choosing to believe the right thing or having the good sense to accept God because there’s gotta be something that makes us better and more deserving! Humans seem to desperately want to have something to do with earning God’s love, with being deserving of going to heaven, with being worthy because of something we do or choose or belong to.
But the truth of the matter is that that’s all our ego talking. Scripture is clear that good works don’t save us and that even our faith is itself a gift from God. Faith and good works are things the Holy Spirit inspires in us, they’re a natural result of being loved by God but not something that precedes that love. The truth is we can’t do anything to earn God’s love or favor. Because we already have it! Absolutely unconditionally. There’s no decision to be made. No good works to be accomplished. Nothing necessary to earn our spot on God’s team.
This is especially evident in what will happen to baby Lucas in a few moments. In just a few minutes Lucas will be baptized into God’s family. Not because he earned it. Not because he made a decision to be baptized. Not because he even understands what’s going on. But simply because God loves him. In Baptism we hear the promise of God’s love and grace and forgiveness and eternal life. Not because we do anything to earn it, but simply because God already loves us so much. That’s why we baptize infants and adults and anyone of any age. Because God’s love is pure gift, just like Baptism.
This comes across most clearly when we baptize infants. Because they can’t possibly do anything to earn it or choose it. Adults can’t either, we just sometimes think we can! Which brings us back to the prayer Jesus prayed to the Father: “You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and revealed them to infants…” The gifts of God are a free gift. Regardless of whether we were baptized as infants or adults. And those wise and intelligent adults who think they’ve earned it, don’t get it. And those infants who have no idea what’s going on, do get it.
Now the Gospel reading closes with one of the most wonderful passages in the Bible. If we had any question left about whether or not we need to do something hard and difficult to earn God’s love, Jesus puts an end to that here. He says, “Come to me, all you who 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.”
Human beings seem to always want to make God’s love this really hard thing. But it’s not! It is gentle and easy. It is not a heavy burden to be in relationship with God. It is light and gives rest to our souls. Being in relationship with God is not about having to work hard or earn anything. Just like being baptized isn’t about having to work hard or earn anything. God’s love is simple, gentle, restful, and free. We don’t earn God’s love. God’s love is given to us as a gift. That’s the Good News in a nutshell.
So those of us who think we’re worthy of making the park and rec baseball team may still have a little problem with this whole idea. Better yet—(forgive my corniness)—those of who think we’re worthy of making God’s team may still have a little problem with this idea. But true confessions…after the very first practice with my Babe Ruth League team, I realized that just about everybody on the team was better than me! Good thing making the team wasn’t something I had to earn! And good thing getting a spot on God’s team isn’t something we have to earn. The good news is that instead of having to work tirelessly to earn our spot, we get to spend our time praising God and sharing God’s healing grace with others. We don’t have to do anything to earn God’s gift of grace and love. We don’t have to live our lives trying to impress God, but we get to live our lives working with God for the benefit of our neighbors and the world. Thanks be to God for this amazing gift, for God’s amazing love for us!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, July 9th, 2023.