Imagine that you hear the roar of a car engine outside your door. As you look out, you see a red sports convertible, and in it is a young man with flowing hair and mirrored sunglasses. You can see that he is well tanned because he doesn’t have a shirt on — just shorts and flip flops. His ears, as well as his nipples, are pierced. He puts down a beer into the cup holder in the car as he shuts off the engine. But there is a passenger in the car as well. She is wearing a halter top and shorts, and seems to be coming out of her clothing everywhere. You know her, because everyone in town knows her. People enjoy gossiping about her latest escapades. But, leaving the woman in the car, the young man hops out and comes to your door. He introduces himself as the new pastor of your church.
So you decide to move to the church down the street. At least you know what the pastor there is like. He is very serious and conservative. He always wears a black suit and white shirt with narrow tie — very narrow. He is never seen without a large KJV Bible. He isn’t married and has never had a girlfriend. For some reason, most of his sermons seem to center around hell’s fire and brimstone. No one who has a glass of wine with their meal can serve on the board, and is generally looked down on. And there are a whole host of other legalistic no-no’s. There aren’t many smiles in this church where everyone seems to agree that the world is a pretty awful and sinful place. You quickly decide that this pastor will not meet your needs any more than the other, so you shop around for another church that will satisfy you, but you never find it.
This is very much how the people saw Jesus and John the Baptist. I’ve tried to put it in a modern day parable so you really get the idea. They saw Jesus as a party animal. He drank too much and hung out with all the wrong people. He was always around prostitutes and other notorious sinners, and it did not matter that he was ministering to them and trying to bring them to God. He was wild and did not seem to fit the picture of someone who was supposed to be from God. He did not follow the accepted standards of righteousness. He was out of control.
On the other hand, John the Baptist was a wild man in a different way. People thought he was a crazy man, to the point that they said he must have a demon. He was always yelling when he preached. He looked wild-eyed, and he was dressed in a garment of camel’s hair that would have driven a normal person insane. He ate only grasshoppers and honey. His demeanor was dark and demanding. He was calling even the self-righteous Pharisees to repentance. He sounded like one of the Old Testament prophets, talking about judgment and repentance all the time. He was always talking about the need to turn to God or face the consequences. So they wrote him off and said he was some kind of radical.
They didn’t like the message and the methods of either Jesus or John. Jesus said the people were like children playing a game. These are unknown games to us, but well known to the people of the day. They were probably games in which children were acting out adult ceremonies — like weddings or funerals. One group of children called to another group to play a game. They played a wedding song with a flute and the others would not play and dance. They sang a funeral dirge and they would not play like mourners in that game either. Nothing they tried would work to engage the other group to play with them. Nothing would satisfy them.
The point of what Jesus was saying was that God had sent them every different kind of messenger, but none would do. God had sent his prophets with a funeral dirge and the warning of death and destruction if they did not mourn with repentance, but they did not respond. God had called them with the joyful wedding song that Jesus played, but they did not want to dance. They refused to come to his party. It was like the prodigal son who wanted to leave his father’s house because it was too restrictive and boring. But his older brother also refused to come to the party his father threw, and stayed outside sullen and angry. Jesus said that it was not the messenger that was the problem, the problem was stubborn unbelief. They would not believe anyone God sent. They would not mourn and neither would they dance. They refused to be a part of the party God was throwing. John was too holy for them, and Jesus was not holy enough. And in the end, both John and Jesus would meet violent deaths.
When they called Jesus a drunk and a glutton there was a reason for using this particular language. They were thinking of Deuteronomy 21, where it talks about the problem of parents with a rebellious son. The scripture says, “And they [the parents] shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear” (Deuteronomy 21:20-21, KJV). So they took their authority from Scripture in order to justify themselves in their desire to stone Jesus — which they tried on various occasions. They did not like his style or his message, which contradicted what they believed about God and the way things should be. And they flatly refused to participate in anything that either John or Jesus presented to them. They were like petulant and implacable children.
And it was not just the religious leaders, it was the common people of the day who rejected Jesus as well. Jesus had lived among the people in the towns of Capernaum, Korazin and Bethsaida. He had ministered to them and taught them. He performed miracles and healings. He had fed them with miracle bread, just as God had fed the Israelites in the wilderness, but nothing seemed to really work. They were still hardened in their unbelief. So the Bible says, “Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. ‘Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No, you will go down to the depths. If the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.’”
That is pretty strong language. In fact, it is some of the strongest language Jesus ever used. Who was worse than Tyre and Sidon, with their savage warfare and cruelty? Who was worse than Sodom and Gomorrah in their sin? To say that it would go better at the judgment with them than Israel was shocking indeed. It would be like saying that it would go better at the judgment with the Nazis than for America. It would be like saying that it would go better for an atheistic communistic country like the former Soviet Union than for America. For the United States has had its Billy Grahams and other great evangelists, and yet remains steadfast in its sin and unbelief for the most part. Perhaps if these countries had the privilege of having the gospel preached in them they way we have, they would have repented in sack cloth and ashes and lasting revival would have broken out. We need to repent in order to avoid this kind of problem at the judgment.
But then Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.” These children are not the same children he spoke of earlier. Earlier, he was actually speaking about adults who acted like children who were bored and impossible to please. But these children are true children — children who are playful and full of awe and wonder. They believe easily and naturally. They are simple, innocent and open. It is to these that God has chosen to reveal himself.
The religious leaders said that only by studying the Torah could one gain wisdom, and as a result come to know God. It was difficult and took years of learning. They called it “the yoke of the Torah,” and it was a heavy yoke. They rejected the easy yoke and light burden Jesus spoke of. They memorized the entire Old Testament and knew all the commandments. They had studied the great teachers of Scripture. All of this was inaccessible to the common person. You might as well demand that they all become experts in quantum physics. The religious leaders had formed extremely complex forms of thought. But Jesus said that in all their wisdom they had missed the obvious. Jesus said that God had hidden his truth from the wise and revealed it to children. It made God happy. Children get the obvious. That is why we read in the Gospel of Matthew: “At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1-4).
The greatest truth and wisdom is hidden from many of those who are the philosophers, the scholars and the scientists. The Bible says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Jesus is telling us that we have to be humble, simple, innocent and open. We have to be childlike. If we are not, God opposes us. He hides from us. He hides the secrets to life from us. We cannot know him unless we become like a child.
I know people who have become so involved in reading different philosophies that they no longer make any sense. These are people with brilliant minds, but they have immersed themselves in skepticism, existentialism, nihilism and the rest so that their minds are a confusing mass of tangled and conflicting ideas. They don’t know what they believe, only what they do not believe — which is almost everything. Faith is no longer an option to them, for it is naive and simplistic. Doubt is realism and faith is fantasy. It is a dangerous place to be. Life goes in circles for them. Life and truth and God are hidden from them.
The apostle Paul wrote, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel — not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe... For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength” (1 Corinthians 1:20-21,25).
A pastor friend of mine, who is also one of my canoeing buddies, has a blog. One time he told this story: “My Texas daughter and her family recently moved into a new home in the Piney Woods of East Texas. Behind the house is a good-sized section of undeveloped land, full of trees and bushes. When I was there this past New Years day, some of us put on our coats and took the three kids on a hike to explore what might be there. We didn’t find anything more dangerous than the occasional briar or thistle. But when we had walked back far enough so that we could no longer see the house, my five year old grandson, Ben, asked his dad if there were any polar bears in the woods. His dad said, no, there are no polar bears in the woods. To which Ben replied, in his best Protector-of-the-Hearth voice, ‘Well if there were any polar bears, or even brown bears, I’d fight them.’ And he put up his fists to show how serious his intentions were. His four-year old sister, Eleanor, the family’s self-appointed Lover of the Arts, said in response, ‘And if there are any fancy girl bears who like to dance, I will dance with them.’ Ben thought the idea of dancing bears in the deep, dark woods was silly and said so: ‘There aren’t any fancy girl bears who dance in the woods, Ellie.’ To which Eleanor said matter of factly, ‘There are in my woods.’ To say that I am pleased at the support which my daughter and her husband give to their children to be creative would be an understatement. In Ben’s woods, there is ursine adventure and the opportunity for courage. In Ellie’s woods is always the possibility of an elegant ball and the chance to dance. And if you don’t like your sibling’s woods, well, you can make one of your own.” He closed by saying, “What’s in your woods?”
God is inviting us into his woods where there are both dangers and dances. But we can only enter his woods as a child who is willing to play.