Did you ever have an experience where you did your best, were proud of your work and still no one seemed to care? Quite some time ago I preached what I thought was an excellent sermon to a congregation that I was visiting. I did all my historical research for fun tidbits and had three church jokes scattered throughout. I memorized most of the sermon, including my turns from one topic to the text, so I could make eye contact. Most importantly, I talked about Jesus and the gospel.
But that sermon fell flat. I just couldn’t muster any engagement. Years ago my preaching professor said, “They can’t all be winners,” and this one wasn’t. I felt deflated at not being able to connect with folks. Still, I held my head up high, having preached Jesus crucified and resurrected.
This week’s lectionary texts are about facing tough losses when one’s ministry doesn’t connect with people and looking on the bright side of what God is doing anyway.
The prophet Zechariah looked forward to a time when a humble, righteous king would come to Zion, riding on a young donkey. God would remove the proud warhorse and the chariot and would spread peace to the nations. And weapons of war would be eliminated. Yet, for the generations of hearers of Zechariah, the relatively benevolent Persians were replaced by the Ptolemies and the increasingly vicious Seleucid Greeks. After a short period of violent self-rule by the Hasmoneans, the Romans exerted their reign of terror. Jesus humbly rode on a donkey, to be sure, but he, along with thousands of others, was crucified and Jerusalem was (and occasionally still is) stained with blood. That whole peace project is yet to come to fruition and certainly looks like a failure at this point.
But under the surface, while the nations rage (and boy, do they ever!), God has been setting prisoners free and functioning as a strong tower for those in need. God frees humans from the powers of sin and death, even as we still wait for freedom from warfare and strife.
Jesus reframes the failure of the earthly outreach to certain cities as part of God’s success.
In Matthew 11, we hear Jesus’ human discouragement with a ministry that isn’t going well. He essentially asks the people, “What do you want from us?” John played a song full of mourning and loss, and the people didn’t respond by crying. Jesus played a song about eating, drinking heavily, making money and hanging out with people in a life of crime (Matthew 11:16-19), and they told him to turn it down. I’m reminded of the scene in Blues Brothers (1980) where the “blues and soul review” band started a riot when they didn’t play “country and western” music at Bob’s Country Bunker in Kokomo, Ind. (just up the road from my synod’s office).
Jesus went on to specifically address the failures of the towns that had been the targets of his ministry. If Tyre, Sidon and even Sodom had seen as many miracles as Chorazin, Bethsaida or even Jesus’ home base of Capernaum, they would have embraced him and repented much more readily than the towns that he had actually visited. Make no mistake, this is a low point in Jesus’ earthly ministry. He was disappointed, saddened and probably quite angry.
Instead of quitting in despair, Jesus turned to praise. He praised his Father in heaven for hiding the truth of his ministry and role from the wise and intelligent while revealing it to infants instead. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom he is pleased to include. Jesus reframes the failure of the earthly outreach to certain cities as part of God’s success. Of course it would be this way, that the gospel would spread slowly among those who aren’t as impressive, wise or powerful! That is God’s pleasure—to confound the wisdom of the wise (1 Corinthians 1:19).
Jesus resisted the temptation to gain all the cities and kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:8-10) and to frame missionary successes only in terms of cities that welcomed him and his disciples with open arms. Instead, he persevered in faithfulness to the calling that God placed on him, even unto death. That is not failure—it’s the success that saved us all.