The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead
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Parish Eucharist      9th July 2017
Come to me and I will give you rest (Matt 11.28)
Handley Stevens

Trinity 3, Year A
Psalm 145
OT Lesson : Zechariah 9.9-12
NT Lesson : Romans 7.15-25a
Gospel       : Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end
Text: Come to me … and I will give you rest (Matt 11.28)
This morning’s readings are a perplexing mixture of hope and disappointment, rest and restlessness, success and catastrophic failure.  We began well enough with Zechariah’s prophecy of a humble but mighty triumphant king who will rescue the prisoners from their waterless pit, and restore them to their stronghold.  And of course Zechariah’s prophecy points to Jesus who will enter Jerusalem humbly, riding on a donkey,
Our hopes are raised, we feel encouraged, but when we come to the gospel we encounter Jesus berating the people around him for their failure to respond adequately to the preaching of John the Baptist, or to himself.  Our lectionary omits the catastrophic consequences, as Jesus rains down curses on the Galilean villages of Bethsaida, Chorazin and Capernaum, whose people have failed to respond, like children refusing to join a game.  We played the flute for you, and you would not dance; we wailed and you would not mourn (v 17).  Their fate will be worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah, overwhelmed by a volcanic eruption.
If these ordinary villagers are to be wiped out as a consequence of their failure to recognise and respond to the deeds of grace and power that have been done in their midst, Paul’s failure is more personal, more internal.  From his understanding of the Law of Moses, he knows what is right, what he ought to do, and in his mind he even wants to do it, but he cannot.  When I want to do what is good, he writes, evil lies close at hand (Rom 7.21).  Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death? (v24).
So, despite Zechariah’s joyous vision, we are faced with two desperate groups of people, the first condemned because they cannot or will not respond to what is happening under their noses, and the second – Paul – wanting to respond to the promptings of his better nature, but trapped in his inability to do so.  And yet, disastrous as the situation appears to be, our gospel reading concludes with the gracious voice of Jesus appealing to his hearers to come to him.  Like Zechariah’s vision of the triumphant king, he is gentle and humble in heart, and ‘you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (v 29,30).  What are we to make of such conflicting messages?
The rest which Jesus promises here is not so much the relief from hard labour that comes with physical rest, but rather our Lord’s response to that deep restlessness of heart about which St Augustine would write: our heart is restless until it rests in you.  Here is a quote from his Confessions that gives a flavour of his restlessness and God’s response.
Who will grant me this grace that you should come into my heart and inebriate it, enabling me to forget the evils that beset me and embrace you, my only good?  What are you to me?  Have mercy on me so that I may tell.  What indeed am I to you, that you should command me to love you, and grow angry with me if I do not, and threaten me with enormous woes?  Is not the failure to love you woe enough in itself?
Alas for me! Through your own merciful dealings with me, O Lord my God, tell me what you are to me.  Say to my soul, I am your salvation.  Say it so that I can hear it.  My heart is listening, Lord; let me run towards this voice and seize hold of you. 
Augustine’s overwhelming sense of Jesus’ mercy and love may be the answer to an inner torment such as Paul experienced.  If that is the message you are hearing this morning, grasp it with both hands, and turn to Paul’s next chapter – Romans 8 – to experience the joy with which he then affirms that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  What more could we possibly need to have rest for our souls?
But we are not all troubled mystics, wrestling with spiritual failure.  We are ordinary men and women, trying to do what is right in our lives, but struggling with cares and responsibilities. Jesus understands this too.  For us, perhaps the secret lies in the prayer that Matthew puts into Jesus’ mouth just before he makes the promise of rest.  No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son (Matt 11.26,27). The implication is that this total identification of Jesus with his Father is the secret of his own inner restfulness.  It is a secret that a child can grasp, even if clever people can’t get their heads around it.
What is Jesus saying to us here? How are we to relax into his promise of rest like a small child snuggling confidently into the embrace of a loving parent?  How are we to cope with the mix of hopes and disappointments, successes and failures, joys and sorrows that life throws at us?
Many of us are privileged to know, or to have known, that within a loving relationship, in the ease of companionship, which comes from knowing and understanding the other, without barriers, or no-go areas, or failures of communication, there can be profound restfulness. We also know that the perfection of such restfulness is beyond our human reach.  Perhaps the secret which Jesus could not disclose more clearly at this point in his ministry was the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that dwelt in Jesus himself, the Spirit which knows God intimately as loving Father, and can therefore be at rest in his presence. When Jesus promises rest to those who will come to him with their burdens of carefulness and responsibility, I believe he does so in the context of just such a relationship of knowledge and love and obedient service, enabled in us by the gift of the Holy Spirit,.
Come unto me all you that are weary and heavy laden, 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.
Lord, grant us such a measure of your Holy Spirit as will give us such rest for our souls, in your presence and in your service, now and always.  Amen

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