I remember learning to drive before the advent of personal GPS devices. I remember getting directions that involved both signs and physical landmarks to get from one place to another. Take a left on River St. and go down until you see the mailbox with a yellow bird on it, then we’re three houses down on the right. Nowadays, I’m more likely to just plug an address into my phone and let it guide me moment by moment down the comforting little blue line until I get to the red destination pin. I hardly have to pay attention to my surrounding at all while the little voice just coaches me turn by turn. But, in truth, I’ve become overly dependent on it. I get a little anxious when I try to do without it because it forces me to put my trust in a different system of navigating that doesn’t offer real-time reassurance. There is simply much more trust involved. Trust that the signs will be there when I need them, trust that I will make the correct turns, and even trust that if I get off track, I’ll be able to get back on course and reach my destination. Looking for signs and waiting for direction can be a precarious thing in the spiritual life.
Do you find yourself waiting on a sign from God? Or, have you ever suddenly beheld a sign that arrested your attention and pointed you in a new direction. God’s engagement with people often catches us unaware or seems absent when we want it most. We may feel like things are going just fine until suddenly our circumstances change and we are gripped with uncertainty and fear. Or, we may be so much on auto-pilot that we don’t realize when a new course of action is necessary. Todays readings highlight both of these kinds of encounters with God and help to point us to Jesus who is an unfailing sign to return to the heart of God.
Sometimes the message we most need to hear is the one we least want to receive. When such a message arrives, the urge can be quite strong to either fight with – or flee from – the messenger.
Maybe the messenger was your brilliant, beloved professor. Rather than offer your work the praise and affirmation you did not need, she articulated a challenging and pointed critique that she knew you could handle. In the end, this forced you to see things from a fresh perspective and inspired a more mature artistic vision. But in the moment, you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was the time your best friend sat you down and said some things that left your heart and your ego badly bruised. In the days, weeks, or years that followed, that conversation proved to be medicine for your soul and a catalyst for new self-awareness. But in the moment, you thought, “Excuse me?”
Maybe it was a spiritual director who gently pushed you when you were stuck in some existential swamp by persistently asking hard questions. With time, the Holy Spirit used those questions, unearthing insights that ushered in a new era in your relationship with God. But in the moment you thought, “Excuse me?”
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!
For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon,
they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”
I doubt there are many preachers who would clamor to preach on the gospel text we have just heard. We preachers tend to avoid the difficult sayings of Jesus and look for more comfortable and pleasing words. This straight-talking, hard-hitting, no-holds-barred Jesus disturbs us. And yet this may be one of the blessings of having texts chosen for us by a daily lectionary, which compels us forego, at least occasionally, the more agreeable stories and sayings of Jesus. In texts like these, we are forced to confront the message of Jesus in all its forms.
Exodus 2:1-15/Psalm 69:31-38/Matthew 11:20-24
I remember growing up my dad subscribing to the Readers Digest Condensed Books. Several times a year you would be mailed a volume that contained abridged versions of four or five recently published books. It was a very middle brow sort of thing and popular in the Midwest where I’m from. The “condensed books” would have all the “best parts” of a book, but leave out all the “unnecessary” parts—whatever that meant in some editor’s opinion.
If I were making a Readers Digest Condensed Book from the Gospel of Matthew, I just might leave out today’s passage about the woes and damnation of Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. It simply doesn’t resonate for me the way The Sermon on the Mount and the Summary of the Law and the Passion story do. The Bible as a whole has passages that really sing to me and parts that I wouldn’t miss if they weren’t there.
Is. 7:1-9/Ps. 48/Mat. 11:20-24
It’s hard to know quite what to make of this: the “woes” to Chorazin and Bethsaida, the damning to hell of Capernaum. I’m tempted to suspect that this anger actually reflects the concerns of a later generation. Matthew seems to have been written about 50 years after Jesus’ death. Perhaps Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum were Jewish communities that resisted conversion to Christianity, or even persecuted Christian Jews.