But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. - Matthew 11:16–19
This passage discloses a fundamental tension in faith, a tug of war between…
…the call to self-denial and the call to feast.
…our sinful nature and our divine spark.
…the stern demands of God and the infinite grace we receive.
…a God who demands everything and a God who gives us all.
…God who punishes our iniquities and a God who forgives our evil deeds.
Throughout history the church waxed and waned between these extremes, most notably in the Middle Ages. There was an order of monks, the flagellants, who whipped themselves to suppress pleasure, physical joy, and wrong thoughts, while ecstatic mystic women prayed themselves into moments of ecstasy in God’s presence.
This tension is manifest in the dynamic lives of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John famously emerges from the wilderness, eating locus and wild honey, not to mention wearing a scratchy hairshirt! His first words are scathing, “Repent...You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Because of John’s austerity and wrath-oriented message they accused him of being possessed!
But Jesus fared no better in the rumor mill of his time, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!”
We need to hold the tension between these extremes because without, both our faith becomes problematic. This is not a milquetoast middle. Think of a high-tension wire that you need to walk across. Simply holding it in the middle will mean the ends are limp and dangling. But if you pull it taut on both sides, suddenly it can be crossed. This is the path of faith which means a strong understanding and experience of sorrow and joy.
A faith only of sweetness and light can become just as shallow as a life only lived for personal pleasure. A faith so immersed in guilt and shame becomes necrotic and ultimately denies the goodness of God. A faith which demands nothing of you turns God into the vending machine. A faith which leaves no room for our personal pleasure becomes an act of self-loathing.
Throughout the Bible, God, like a good parent, reprimands and comforts. Sometimes like I feared my grandma Rian, who would not hesitate to put me on the Deacon’s bench as a child, we should fear God. For that fear helps us to be faithful and honest.
And yet, despite this dual witness in scripture, there is a decided bias. God’s “yes” is louder than God’s “no”. The final word is not judgement but grace, and the final description of you is not “sinner” but “beloved child of God”.
Not only is the final word of God “yes”, but the primary word for you and me now, today, even in this world as it is, is not sorrow but joy!
And we can see this in the life of Jesus. Most of the depictions and even the scriptures convey Jesus as a very serious, somewhat moody – filled with compassion, yes – but scary, or often just plain dull.
We have the impression from centuries of interpretation that Jesus was a solemn man who only went about preaching and doing miracles and speaking profoundly but in fact our passage shows us that this was not the case; the gospel writers clearly recorded another side.
The criticism that He was a drunkard, and a glutton conveyed His ability to enjoy the simple things in life and to do so with a sense of camraderie with whoever is willing to sit at table with Him.
In this text we see quite SURPRISINGLY that JESUS represents the joyous side of the religious movement at the time within Judaism and John the more ascetic. Jesus had of course deep respect for John, but He chose a different path. He chose the sinners and tax collectors; because let’s face it; they are more fun! And life is meant to be filled with joy!
Christianity’s central message, after all, is known as “the good news of the gospel” Good news! “I’ve got good news good news / good news good news” as the song goes.
Of course, the irony is for everyone to have true access to this good news requires in the end the most horrific events of bad news.
But this is key. Jesus did not suffer this terrible fate on the cross to say we all must live lives of bad news, but of good news. And in this mystery, Jesus transforms the very nature of suffering and pain so that it becomes the primary path to freedom and joy. Thus, the duality, the tension of the faith is God’s plan to redeem and restore us all. So, Paul rejoices in the Lord always.
He rejoices in his physical infirmity.
In the feuds with fellows Christians.
In his tragic shipwrecks.
In the beatings from the Romans.
And while in prison he sings; he sings songs of praise.
I have seen this same joy in prisons in men’s eyes, bodies, hearts, and souls. It was the music on Sunday worship at Trenton State Prison, and they had given their lives to Christ, and, yes, that sounds very evangelical, but it was also very true. And so, though they were in earthly bondage, their spirits, as was Paul’s, were free.
And this is the truest of all good news we will ever know.
It is good news when a college acceptance comes.
When a promotion comes through.
When a health scare is averted.
But as wonderful as they are, they are fleeting, and they can all be lost.
The college may not work out.
The health problem return.
And promotion becomes a firing.
But this good news of the gospel cannot be lost. It can only be found.
This means, oddly enough, the Bible also wants us to rejoice even about the trials, not just the ‘feel good’ stuff. For it all comprises God’s plan to bring us greater wholeness and peace.
So, Paul wasn’t the only one. James wrote in his epistle, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
This fundamental tension of faith between joy and sorrow prevented C.S. Lewis for years from accepting the good news. He wrote, “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.”
But over time through conversations with Tolkien and reading George MacDonald, he came to see, “The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.”
Thus, he saw the central truth of Christianity and wrote Surprised by Joy, which describes his conversion. And like most of us, he had confused the extreme demands of Christianity as a life bereft of happiness. But instead as the title conveys, he was surprised by the joy!
But the Christian does not suddenly become unfailingly happy. Happiness and joy are distinct. Joy comes precisely through the work of suffering, suffering out of love. Thus, God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son.
As Lewis wrote:
To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal.
Thus, we come to know this joy is discovering that you are loved by the essence of love itself.
Some years ago, our family experienced a loss. And the comfort of family and familiar pleasures could not release me from the sorrow. It was a sorrow like a cave in which I could not even see the way out. But Sunday rolled around like it did every week. I did not want to lead worship. I felt vulnerable, afraid, and did not want to draw attention to myself. So, I was surprised, that as soon as we sung the opening hymn, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, a healing joy washed over me, cleansing tears flowed through me. The sorrow for the loss was still present but the love of God had transformed the pain.
God wants us to enjoy life. But if that means only pleasure it will become hollow and empty. True joy only comes through true love which as we know can bring pain. But the final word from God is love. Amen.