Praying Perception

Matthew 11:1-6, 16-19

Have you ever felt like John the Baptist? Imprisoned by your convictions, perplexed by the outcomes of faithful devotion, wondering if you missed something in this following-Jesus, kingdom-life? Or perhaps, like the women and men in the cities which the disciples called home, you are acquainted with the God of the bible, possibly having seen the works of Jesus at some point, heard his message, but the impact was shallow. Certainly a divot to mark your encounter, even to compel you to be here today, but his works and his words have limited impact on day to day life. You are neither compelled to the devotion of John and his disciples nor compelled to the unsavory freedom of Jesus’ associations.


The faithful confused, the familiar complacent; what prayer would you expect Jesus to pray in such a setting? How about a prayer of Thanksgiving? Read with me Matthew 11:25-27,


At this time Jesus said in response, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.


All things have been handed over to me by my Father, 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. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.


In the midst of the devoted questioning the kingdom’s arrival and the bombshells of the promised kingdom barely penetrating the surface of those who grew up on the stories of hope, Jesus gives thanks to the Father for what gives God satisfaction is happening right before him[1], “for such was your gracious will”.


How could Jesus pray such a prayer? The one whom Jesus said, “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater”, faith is failing; and, those closest to the disciples show little interest in living a life like they and Jesus. Why could Jesus give thanks? Because “Thanksgiving is not a result of perception; thanksgiving is the access to perception.”[2]


Looking around there was little evidence to perceive that God was working, that Jesus’ ministry was effective or fruitful. Right? When those most devoted to you are questioning the vision and those you have lovingly invested giving you the cold shoulder, things are not well, no matter your measurement of success. But Jesus prays a corporate prayer of public thanks[3]; one compound sentence, two verses:


I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.


Then, in response to his prayer he declares what is true. That the kingdom has been given to him and to all whom he chooses to reveal it to—by the way that included everyone in the interactions so far, the confused, the complacent, and those who flat out said no way. With that perception accessed, Jesus responds with the invitation for the weary faithful to find rest for he cares for them even more than himself (lowly heart) and the side-lined complacent to get in on the serving and find rest as well for his anger is overmatched by his mercy (gentle). His service that looks to laborious or uncomfortable is actually what you were made for (easy means well designed). His service which you wear like a heavy backpack is actually quite light because it is he carrying it. One group finds themselves under a yoke that will lead to their demise (see comments on vs. 20-24 below), and the other finds themselves under a yoke that steals life from life (see comments on vs. 2-6 below). Either way, only the way of Jesus relieves what oppresses.


How so? The only way to know the truth is to live it, experience it. To give thanks with Jesus that this is how God and his kingdom work.  That’s what the prayer is, thanking God that the kingdom is received not figured out.


Do you remember the three parables in Luke 15 of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son(s); all told by Jesus to capture the image of God (and ultimately himself) seeking out the lost who were confused and the lost who were complacent and even the lost who offended? In each of those stories there is repentance, but not in the way we normally perceive it. In each, repentance is equated to “the acceptance of being found”[4]. Much like an infant who can do nothing but accept, so too do we need the kingdom that comes in and through the life of Jesus. A kingdom-life which compels devotion and provides rest. A perception of reality that we can only access in thanksgiving for its true existence.


We most often think of thanksgiving in response to something beautiful or perceived as favorable. Yet it is in the midst of what seems neither beautiful nor favorable that Jesus teaches us to give thanks – not thanks for the situation, but thanks for what is true. As Virginia Owens comments,


“Thanksgiving is a hard task, not an easy sentiment…Thanksgiving is not a task to be undertaken lightly. It is not for dilettantes [an amateur who pretends to have knowledge] or aesthetes [those compelled only by beauty]. One does not dabble in praise for one’s own amusement, nor train the intellect and develop perceptual skills in order to add to his repertoire [of what to be thankful for]. We’re not talking about the world as a free course in art appreciation. No. Thanksgiving is not a result of perception; thanksgiving is the access to perception. Or, as Laurel Lee wrote, some things have to be believed to be seen. Only the open heart, the open eye, the open throat can take in the world [as is it in the gracious will of God]…It may be natural for the heavens to declare the glory of God, but thanksgiving must be wrung from the throats of those who necessarily weigh, analyze, make distinctions.”[5]



Jesus gives both the faithful and the familiar a warning to their state of perception. To John the Baptist he says,


the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed [already happy] is the one who is not offended by me.


Everything that this kingdom-life is about is happening, if you “are willing to accept it” even in the middle of your confusion then you will already be satisfied. But if not, if you keep “looking for another” you will lose out on the joy that is here today. You will miss out on the fullness of life. 


To the throngs who were put off by the extreme devotion of John the Baptist and the uncomfortable nature of Jesus’ fellowship, he laments,


Then [Jesus] began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent [accept the kingdom as Jesus showed it]. ‘Woe to you, Chorazin! Whoe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon [cities destroyed by their own pride in the OT], they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades [the place of lingering death[6]]. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom [one of the most grotesquely infamous cities in the OT, destroyed by its own debauchery], it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that it will be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.



This lamentation for cities sounds harsh to our ears, and it is mean to! The harshness of judgment—if you remember from last May—can actually be good news; for judgment puts to an end that which keeps us from flourishing, so that we can actually flourish. Judgment ends so that something new can come about. Yet, this is a lament, a grieving exhortation to wake up, like those of the OT in which these 3 cities are named, a cry of one not seeking revenge but trying to save.


There is a joy and fullness that is missed in on our faithful confusion, and there is an entire life that is missed in our familiar complacency.


So this afternoon we will confess our confusion with kingdom and our complacency towards it as well. Then we will give thanks! Praying a prayer of perception as we accept what is true as we share the bread as body broken and juice as blood poured out that we might find rest.



[1]John Nolland notes that the phrase “was your gracious will” can be translated as “In this way [something which was your] good pleasure happened in front of you’. Any sense that there has been a miscarriage in the purposes of God is robustly contradicted; God is affirmed as the prime mover in the unfolding events.” Referenced in, The Gospel of Matthew: a commentary on the Greek text, 471.

[2] Virginia Stem Owens, And the Trees Clap Their Hands: faith, perception and the new physics, 139.

[3] Nolland, 470.

[4] “With Jesus, repentance equals acceptance of being found”, says Kenneth E. Bailey, Jacob & the Prodigal: how Jesus retold Israel’s story, 80. For greater detail see pages 103-107.

[5] Owens, 139.

[6] Nolland, 468, argues “Hades in the LXX represents Sheol of the MT. Sheol was the sphere of the lingering and shadowy continuation of existence of the dead. Sometimes it carries overtones of judgment since the proud and mighty get there by being stripped of their power and humbled in death.”