I made a mistake. I read the wrong text. But then I got excited about that text and chose to run with it. When I read Matthew 11:25-30 as a Reformation Day text, I felt like it offered some great Reformation Day insights. So, I would like to offer a few Reformation Day reflections on a different text than what is appointed in the Lectionary (Matthew 11:12-19).
One more word of introduction. There are plenty of real scholars in the 1517 family who have real expertise on Luther and the Reformation, and I commend them to you for further study. In particular, Dr. Stephen Paulson has a number of resources available about the “Hidden God” in Luther’s writing. So, I ask for mercy and grace as I share some simple thoughts as a parish pastor and preacher.
Matthew 11:25-30 is, or at least begins as, a prayer. It flows much like many of the Psalms, in that it transitions without clean verbal cues between talking to God and about God and to others and about others.
Jesus begins by giving thanks to God the Father, who is the Lord of all. He praises God for His work of hiding and revealing and how this reflects God’s gracious will. Then Jesus continues to address God directly but starts to speak about Himself in the third person in verse 27. But verses 28-30 shift again as Jesus speaks to His immediate hearers and us as Matthew’s readers.
One simple Reformation Day link is to unpack Luther’s connection to the Psalter. His work with the Psalms provides some historical context to his discovery of the Gospel. It also holds together the intellectual and emotional components of life which can easily get pulled apart.
On the one hand, the Psalms (like Scripture as a whole) have content. The Reformation is about theological substance and truth as made known in Scripture. In a sense, it is about getting the Gospel “right.” But on the other hand, Luther did not rediscover the Gospel out of academic curiosity but out of deeply personal existential angst. The head and the heart are both essential components to who we are as whole people. Reading Matthew 11:25-30 like a Psalm invites us into Luther’s world of reading and experiencing Scripture thoughtfully, emotionally, academically, and personally.
Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:25-30 teach us about God, but they also give to us the very comfort of God in Christ Jesus.
Coming out of Luther’s study of the Psalms, the message of the Reformation connects the truth of the Gospel to the experience of its hearers by offering rest through Jesus. But there is also another Reformation angle a preacher might consider with this text. In one brief paragraph, we are faced with the terror of a hidden God as well as the comfort of God as He has revealed Himself in Christ.
The message of the Reformation connects the truth of the Gospel to the experience of its hearers by offering rest through Jesus.
God’s hiddenness, whether as an active hiding or as a simple reality of Him being utterly beyond us, can be terrifying. Like in Romans 1:18-20, we know enough from nature to recognize there is a God, and this God is quite likely wrathful. God, in Himself, is completely beyond us and beyond all bounds. To consider God as an idea or as an anonymous Other who is completely limitless and free and not accountable to anything or anyone is terrifying.
Jesus seems to even be praising God for this hiddenness here in Matthew 11. What is more, Jesus not only praises God for His work of hiding, but He then makes it clear God is so far beyond us that we have no capacity to ever reach Him. These are offensive words which even few Christians take seriously: “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.” We cannot know God apart from God’s gracious self-disclosure. God is hidden.
This is not good news. We are left either contemplating the terrors of what it might mean to fall into the hands of such a God, or else we are left scrambling to find some way to appease His wrath, earn His favor, or perhaps just escape His notice.
But at just this moment, Jesus does have good news. Jesus shifts from speaking about the hidden God to speaking as the revealed God. Jesus shifts from speaking about God in the third person, to speaking as God in the first person. He draws our attention from God as deus absconditus to Himself as deus revelatus.
Verses 28 through 30 show us where we can rest: In Jesus. Jesus gives rest, rest for our souls (or very lives or whole selves). He bears the burden. He faces the terrors of the wrath of God in our place. Jesus carries the yoke and burden of our cross. Jesus cries into the dark void of God’s hiddenness and absence from His place on the cross, quoting Psalm 22. Jesus is alone and lifeless in the tomb. And there, in those dark, dark hours, when God seemed most hidden and His work seemed most heinous, there God reveals His compassionate heart. There He exposes a willingness to choose to give up His eternal and perfect Son in order to welcome home His wayward and burdened creatures, to be adopted as sons and daughters by faith.
God’s hidden work in the cross reveals His eternal love. The God who preached comfort and mercy as the incarnate Jesus, is the same God we preach this week. To preach Christ and Him crucified is to reveal again the revealed God who saves.
Two concluding thoughts on preaching about this:
First, whereas Luther was initially more familiar with being afraid of a hidden God and was then able to find comfort in God revealed, our people likely have the opposite experience. Many people in my pews (myself included much of the time) presume on God’s grace in Christ and forget about (if not outright reject) the idea that God in His hiddenness is absolutely free beyond my imagination. It might be worth timidly peaking behind the curtain in order to experience the real refuge of God’s mercy in Jesus.
Second, C.S. Lewis’ Aslan can serve as a helpful image or narrative here. You can retell Susan’s interaction with Mr. Beaver about whether or not Aslan is “safe” or not in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Or you can recount the scene in The Silver Chair, where Jill desperately needs water but is terrified of the lion by the water, who refuses to give her a guarantee of safety in His presence. Both scenes bring us to a humble appreciate for God’s power, while pointing us to find refuge in His goodness.
Additional Resources for Pentecost 21:
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 19:1-10.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 19:1-10.