14TH SUNDAY: Sunday sermon
COMETO ME ALL YOU WHO LABOUR
Bishop Matthew Hassan KUKAH
The life of Jesus is the highest manifestation of irony, the sharp contrast and the full expression of the fact that; God’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts (Is. 55:8). Once Jesus entered the world, everything changed, all in total fulfilment of divine prophesy. His entry split history into two. Today, the world records everything either before or after Christ. He is the marker of History.
One of those ironies in the life of Jesus is highlighted today in our first reading from the prophet Zachariah who says: Your king shall come to you, a just Saviour. He will banish the chariots of war from Ephraim to Jerusalem. He will restore peace to the nations and his dominion shall be from sea to sea. Wow! How could a king establish a kingdom covering the whole world without accounts of his war of conquest? There is no mention of the size of his army, the stockpile of weapons amassed.
The world has no record of anyone who has built an empire without an army and superior weapons and intelligence. Empires are built by mobilising a superior military force using superior weapons and mobilising your people with a superior message. The conqueror often builds his empire with the loot and blood of the conquered. The conquered live in penury, servitude or slavery. This is what the world has known over time as power and domination.
Do you recall how, for the fifty years of the cold war, America and the Soviet Union struggled for domination of the world, built arsenals of nuclear weapons with trillions of dollars. They merely boasted of how many times over they could kill the other! And then, in 1989, it all came crumbling down without any of the leaders of the two super powers firing a single shot! Bill Clinton who oversaw this development had even dodged the draft! Jesus announces that his kingdom will not be of the world, meaning, it would require something extra to recognise the kingdom (Jn. 18:36). Even Boko Haram has been waging its war with the belief that if it wins, we will all, even with Muslims either embrace their form of Islam or die.
If you live in Nigeria, you can understand the frustrations of people with failed promises made by their rulers. Those of us who were already born during independence, were regaled with stories of how great will become paradise on earth after we drive out the British. Independence came, we had barely finished waving the flags when the military came, drove the civilians and promised us another paradise. Rather, they took us through a civil war, organised many coups, murdered one another in the struggle to govern us. Then they left and the politicians took over again. Then as now, every group comes with promises, carrying their messiahs on chariots of falsehood, making promises and serving us the same broth of lies and fraud. We always believe them and their promises because they tell us they will do better than those that have gone before them. We vote, they get to power and then the cure is worse than the disease. This is why the weapons of the kingship of Christ should be our model today.
Prophet Zechariah, along with others like Haggai and Malachi are called the prophets of restoration. After the Babylonian exile, Israel returned to see that the prophesies made while they were in exile were still unfulfilled. The building of the temple in Jerusalem will be only a metaphor for the hope of the restoration of Israel. But there is an irony here. If the people of Israel have waited for thousands of years for a Saviour, surely, his arrival must be the stuff of spectacle, myth, drama, awe, with all the paraphernalia of power. Do you remember how the much awaited Buhari Presidency was celebrated? Recall those young men who rode to their death in excitement or those who trekked hundreds of kilometers to mark the event?
Has any of you ever seen the preparations that go with the travel of a Nigerian President? If you live in Abuja, you will see the Police and Security men line up as early as 8am from the Villa to the Presidential Wing of the Airport. Although the President does not need a boarding pass, all of this is a show of his power. When he arrives the Presidential wing, only one of the six aircrafts will be ready to take him. In the one or two hours to the takeoff or landing of a Presidential plane, no other aircraft, even an air ambulance is allowed to share the air space with a President. This is part of the mystique of power. You may recall that during the campaigns, General Buhari said he would sell the Presidential aircrafts so he could travel with the rest of us. Perhaps he really wanted to, but those who manage power believe otherwise. The trappings of power must have a shock and awe mystique. So, you can understand what the people of Israel expected and how Jesus disappointed them.
Now, let us return to Zechariah who talks of this king; whose dominion will be from sea to sea and from the river to the end of the earth. My God! Recall that all powerful men and women are expected to walk with a swagger and a retinue of supporters as a manifestation of their power. Prophet Zechariah now embarrasses us all by telling us that despite all this power, the King that is being awaited will not even a decorated horse or a camel. He will be on a donkey, a borrowed one at that! This is how God meets history. You can understand why the Jews were scandalised by the notion of the kingship of Jesus. It is one reason why Judas revolted. Jesus fell below the radar of human expectations of men of power. A frustrated Peter had asked in shock; We have left everything and followed you, what will be our reward?(Mt. 19:27).
The life of this all powerful king is, strangely, a scandal: He will be born in a manger with animals because his earthly parents were too poor to afford a room in the inn (Lk. 2:7). He had no place to lay his head (Lk. 9:58). He relied on a friend’s generosity to eat his last supper (Lk. 22: 12). He had to borrow a donkey to ride into Jerusalem (Mk. 11). In exhaustion, he had to be helped to carry his cross (Mk. 15:21). Even in death, He is buried in a borrowed tomb (Lk. 23:50). To understand the nature of the scandal in the life of Jesus requires superior knowledge, knowledge from an all knowing God who does not receive advise from anyone (Is. 40:13).
So, today’s Gospel strikes at the heart of the challenge and special privilege of being a Christian. Jesus has already taught us how to pray by calling God our Father (Mt. 6:5). In the Gospel, Jesus prays: I thank you Father for hiding these things from the learned and revealing them to mere children. The message here is straight forward: Encountering God is not the result of our human efforts or brilliance. Jesus said: You did not choose me, I chose you (Jn. 15:16). No one can come to me unless the Father draws him (Jn. 6:44). Unless moved by the spirit, you cannot call Jesus Lord (1 Cor.12:3). When Peter recognised Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus warned him not to forget that it is not flesh and blood that gave him the revelation but the Father in Heaven (Mt. 16:17).
In the end, God is the giver of knowledge, but human knowledge is only useful if it reveals the glory of God to us. It is only useful if it gives glory to God, if it leads us to say with the Psalmist: Not to us Lord not to use but to your name must glory by given (Ps.115:1). We cannot access this knowledge from the high horse of pride and arrogance. This is why Jesus calls on us who seek this knowledge to become little children. We should not be tempted to trust in horses and chariots as sources of our power (Ps 20:7). The innocence of childhood with its unquestioning trust and affection are preconditions for encountering God
Finally, what lessons are we to take home from the readings of today? There are many but I will list just three. In humble adoration, let us position ourselves in such a way that God will find us prepared to recognise Him. Jesus warned: You search for me in the Scriptures, thinking that in them you will find me, yet Scripture bears witness to me (Jn. 5: 39). Human labour, study and intelligence will not enable us find God. Being a star in; Intelligence Squared is not a requirement. Knowing Christ is a gift, a gratuitous gift of God and that is why Jesus said: No one knows the Son except the father, and no one knows the father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him (Mt.11:27). Our prayer today is, let God reveal himself to us, let him let his face shine upon us (Num. 6:24).
Two, Jesus promised us the gift of the Holy spirit. The holy spirit is what gives us the energy to continue on the difficult journey of faith in this troubled world. The holy spirit is our oxygen. What we call the indwelling of the holy spirit refers to the permanent presence of the holy spirit in us. This is why we are temples of the holy spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). St. Paul further reminds us in today’s second reading: Whoever does not have the spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But John warns us: Do not believe every spirit but test the spirit to see if they are from God ( 1 Jn. 4:1). If the spirit is in you as a Christian and a child of God, then, do not fear because Christ has overcome the world (Jn. 16:33). Beware of false prophets who claim that God told them so and so or that God gave them a message to deliver to you. Very often, these messengers of God are often sent only to those with power and deep pockets.
Third and finally, we live in a broken world and we are victims of the failed promises of those in power. In Nigeria, there are hardly straight roads to public service. The jobs are given out before they are advertised. Where you worship, your ethnicity or gender are often more important than being a citizen of Nigeria. Amidst this uncertainty, most of us have earned the right to be afraid of the future. Yet, if we are truly Christians, we are called to work with humility, devotion and dedication.
Too many of us feel so powerless that we are often going around in search of powerful men and women with connections to stand for us. Often, they stand for us at a price. You cannot be a child of God and be looking for godfather. Those of us who have been on planes are familiar with the turbulence in the skies. We are also familiar with the Pilots who always announce with so much confidence: Fasten your seat belts. We are soon going to enter some slight turbulence, but nothing to worry about. Really? I dread those announcements and you always see passengers exchanging looks. Yet, the Pilots insist with supreme confidence.
One day, a plane entered such turbulence and the passengers of course began to pray, some saying their last prayers. A little girl who seemed totally oblivious of the turbulence just kept running down the aisle. One of the passengers pulled her aside and said: Why, are you not afraid of the turbulence? She smiled and said, No, I am used to it because my father is the pilot! My dear brothers and sisters, there will always be turbulence in life. The question is, when turbulence hits, are you frightened or are you relaxed because you know and trust that your father is the pilot?
Covid-19 is a turbulence, but do not be afraid. Jesus calmed the storms and made even the winds and the seas to obey Him (Mt. 8: 27). The last verse in today’s Gospel assures us: Come to me all you who labour and I will give you rest….My yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Mt. 11:30). Therefore, my dear friends, with the Psalmist, let us amidst these difficulties proclaim: We will not fear even if the earth is shaken or the mountains plunge into the sea, the God of hosts is with us ( Ps 46: 3-4).