Matthew 11.16-19 & 25-30
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew reminded me of the old joke about the vicar who was leaving his parish. You know the one. On his last Sunday the vicar was saying farewell to his congregation at the Church doors. He shook the hand of an elderly lady as she walked out. "Your successor won't be as good as you," she told him. "Nonsense!", he replied. "No, really", she insisted, "I've seen five vicars come and go, and each new one has been worse than the last."
It’s not just vicars and ministers who are victims of this syndrome, of course. What about politicians? A year ago most people broadly welcomed the promise made by David Cameron and George Osbourne’s to cut public spending to avoid the country being saddled with huge debts. Sage observers wagged their fingers knowingly and said, “But wait until the specific cuts are announced. Will people be so keen to support them then?”
Sure enough, the generals have protested about reductions in spending on the army, the doctors rose up in revolt about plans to introduce more competition in the NHS, and the public couldn’t stomach Ken Clarke’s plans to reduce the prison population. Now public sector workers are up in arms about plans to reduce the government’s pension bill. And, of course, as the cuts start to take effect shops are closing and jobs are being lost in the private sector too.
Our generation is a lot like the generation which Jesus criticised. People quickly change their minds and are quite capable of wanting one thing one day, and the exact opposite the next.
When John the Baptist came along people said he was certainly impressive, and charismatic, and worth going to listen to in the desert, but he was too stern, too much of a hair-shirt radical, too different from the ordinary person in the street, too austere in his life-style, too unbending. Winston Churchill might have been talking about this popular attitude to John the Baptist when he once famously said of an opponent, “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”
But then along came Jesus, and people said that he was equally impressive and charismatic, perhaps more so, and equally worth meeting and listening to, but he was too unbuttoned, too easy-going, too ready to forgive. Winston Churchill might have been talking about the popular attitude to Jesus when he said of a colleague, “Meeting him was like opening your first bottle of champagne, knowing him was like drinking it.” Jesus had a reputation - whether it was deserved or not - for being the life and soul of the party, full of sparkle and fizz. Wonderful though he was, he was not like anyone’s idea of a typical prophet or holy man.
So, on the one hand people complained about John the Baptist, but in the next breath they complained about Jesus as well. Jesus himself compared the people of his generation to children who refuse to join anyone’s game. They won’t pretend to be happy but neither will they pretend to be sad. They sit on the sidelines. They refuse to get off the fence. They won’t commit themselves.
The problem with this kind of attitude is it that it breeds cynicism and negativity. People who are non-committal are risk averse. They lack drive and enthusiasm. They’re more inclined to see reasons not to do things, or not to join in something, be obstructive and critical than to be positive and creative. They’re better at knocking things down than building them up.
Clearly, the best kind of disciple isn’t going to be someone filled with pessimism, doubt or mistrust. The best disciple is someone who is able to have such simple faith in the goodness and wisdom of God that they are set free from fear and lack of belief so that they can do what needs to be done.
I have been in the Winston Churchill box of quotations this week, looking for the two quotes I used earlier, and I found that he had quite a lot to say on this subject. For instance, he once said that “attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” He also said, “I am an optimist, because there doesn’t seem much use in being anything else.” And finally, he said, “Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm” and - in a similar vein - “success is not final; and failure is not fatal; but it is the courage to continue that counts.”
Of course, as St Paul acknowledges, it’s all well and good knowing the kind of disciple we ought to be, but it’s another matter entirely to be that person. “What I do is not what I want to do,” he complains.
Andy Murray probably feels exactly the same way after Friday’s defeat by his arch-rival Rafael Nadal. The Daily Telegraph rather unkindly said that his dream of glory on home soil now lies in tatters. But the fact remains that Murray is capable of winning Wimbledon, he has the potential, and yet he cannot do it.
Being a disciple of Jesus is a bit like being Andy Murray. In his case it’s probably psychological pressure which prevents him from winning a grand-slam tournament. In our case St Paul argues that it is sin which interferes with our ability to do the right thing.
“If what I do is against my will then clearly...it is no longer I who perform the action but the sin that dwells in me,” he says. This could sound a little bit schizophrenic, as if Paul were arguing that it wasn’t his decision to do this or that because it was the voices in his head which were telling him what to do. But I think what he’s really saying is that it is human nature which takes him prisoner and controls his conduct, despite his best intentions.
Sin is synonymous with human nature for St Paul. He says that we inherit our tendency to sin from our parents and from the society around us - either through our genes or through our upbringing, or a mixture of both. This is what later theologians termed ‘original sin’, although St Paul doesn’t use this term himself. What he does say, though, is that our inherited tendency to fall short of our highest aims and ambitions is a sort of living death, an insurmountable obstacle to enjoying the full kind of human existence which Jesus often talked about.
Fortunately, there is a remedy. Through the life and death of Jesus, and the love that he revealed, God can set us free from our inheritance and allow us to break the pattern - which Churchill talked about - of doggedly plodding on from one failure to the next failure. Instead, we can at last find the kind of attitude which really will make a big difference to our own lives and to the world around us. And we can do this by trusting in the redeeming power and love revealed by Jesus in his death on the cross.
Great sportsmen and women know that it’s only when we have overcome your inner demons that we can release our true and winning potential. We will just have to hope that one day Andy Murray can find the mental focus to win the big championship title that still currently eludes him, but in our case the remedy is already at hand. if we want to find our true potential as disciples of Jesus we have only to entrust ourselves wholeheartdly to the guidance of his Spirit. It’s not something we shall be able to do all of the time, but if we could do it even some of the time, and especially when it comes to the big match points in our lives, imagine what a difference we could make to our world, our community, our church, our family and our friends.