Text: Matthew 11:25-30
“Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all who truly turn to Him. ‘Come unto me all ye that travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.’”
We hear these beautiful words each week after the Confession and Absolution. They give us assurance of forgiveness and invite us to draw closer to Christ as we receive His Body and Blood in Holy Communion. But as you well know, hearing these words and living them is not always the same thing. Even though we have His promise of being refreshed how many of us still frequently find ourselves in travail and heavy laden, or as more modern texts put it, “weary and burdened”? But before we consider how it is that the Lord refreshes us let’s consider why it is that we are weary and burdened in the first place.
I think we get a clue on why Jesus’ original hearers were burdened when we go into the next few verses past our reading today. In chapter 12 of St. Matthew we see Jesus get into it with the Pharisees because they observed his disciples, who were hungry, picking the heads off of grain and eating them, as they walked through the grain fields. The reason that the Pharisees objected to this behavior was because it was the Sabbath and according to their rules, picking the heads off of grain and eating was classified as work and you are not supposed to work on the Sabbath. Jesus responded by reminding them of David and his companions entering the house of God and eating the consecrated bread and He ends the discussion by saying in other words, “Oh by the way, I’m the Lord of the Sabbath.” Mic drop.
Can you imagine living under a religious system where everything you do, including snacking, is put under the microscope of laws and traditions? No wonder the people in Jesus’ time were weary and burdened. Thank the Lord that doesn’t exist in Christianity! Oh but it does.
Adam grew up in an ultra fundamentalist household and he can talk to you about the rules. I have a friend of many years ago who was a part of a very conservative Presbyterian group doing his doctrinal dissertation on the meaning of the Sabbath. One of his sources told him that if he went out on a Sunday afternoon, after going to church mind you, and tossed the football with his son, he would be violating the Sabbath. He finished his dissertation and became an Anglican.
I suggest that it would be helpful to take an inventory of our own lives and see if we have had any legalism sneak into our relationship with God. But note that there is a difference between tradition and legalism. Godly traditions are like train tracks that take you where you want to go while there is no progress in legalism. Legalism makes you stuck and makes you weary and burdened. If you find it in your life get rid of it without any guilt. It’s not from God. The Scripture tells us that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.
What other things make us weary and burdened? Self-righteousness, the kissing cousin of legalism, makes us weary and burdened. Often when we think of self-righteousness we think of the prideful Pharisees but it can be subtler than that and even come from a well-meaning heart.
Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk before he became the famous renegade priest. He was desperate to know and to please God so he not only obeyed all of the rules; he went above and beyond, trying to make Himself acceptable to God. He had a confessor named Von Staupitz whom he nearly drove crazy. He would go to confession and later remember another sin that he forgot to confess and then go back to Von Staupitz. He did this so often that eventually Von Staupitz talked him into leaving the monastery. Luther said, “If ever a monk could have be saved through monkery it was I.”
As well meaning as it can be, trying to make ourselves acceptable to God, trying to make ourselves righteous, is like trying to dig ourselves out of a hole. We end up just being in a deeper hole and we become weary and burdened. “For by grace are you saved…it is not a result of works.” I believe that self-righteousness is a major reason that people become dechurched. They think that church that is not working for them when all the while, in their attempts at making themselves acceptable to God, they only succeed in burning themselves out.
Guilt and unforgiveness are also towards the top of the list of things that make us weary and burdened. They are so damaging that they can end up somatizing, that is being manifested as bodily illnesses.
I was very moved by a scene in the movie named The Mission. The character played by Robert Dinero had killed his brother in a fight over a woman. As an act of penance he joined a religious order. Knowing that he was caring an unbearable amount of guilt and unable to accept forgiveness they had him carry a backpack full of rocks. Dinero did not make the connection until they were scaling a cliff that was almost vertical. While Dinero was struggling and failing to climb it, a brother cut the pack off of his back. As the backpack tumbled away Dinero let his guild tumble with it and he wept like a slave who had just been made free. It made me wonder what bag of rocks I have been carrying around. How about you?
You can probably identify many more things that make us weary and burdened but let me mention one more. Fear or worry about the future is a great burden that wears us out. If you are young you worry about paying tomorrow’s bills, how your kids are going to turn out, if your marriage will survive. As you grow older you ask how long am I going to live? From what will I die? Am I going to be put in a nursing home? Will I run out of money in retirement?
To get your mind off of your worries you turn on the TV only to hear that the Russians allegedly interfered with the elections, North Korea has an intercontinental nuclear weapon and climate change is going to kill us all in ten years. But don’t worry. Be happy. If you just drink the right soft drink you will be okay!
Two questions then are 1. How Jesus gets us from being weary and burdened to finding rest for our souls, and 2. What would that rest look like?
First how does Jesus get us from weary to rest? I believe the key is found in verse 29 and the most important word in that sentence is the word “my.” Jesus does not say, “Follow these rules.” He does not give us the 5 pillars of Islam. He does not point us to the way of enlightenment. He says take My yoke and learn of Me.
I did not grow up in the country so I had to do some research about yokes. All I knew was that it was the yellow part of the egg. Ends up I was wrong. I discovered a document on line named Tiller’s Advanced Training Techniques for Oxen by a professor at the University of New Hampshire. And let me tell you it was a real page-turner. In it he says this. “Using a well broke animal to calm and train a smaller animal works well, especially if there is no chance of the untrained animal challenging the well broke ox…. yoking an untrained animal with a trained ox can be a very successful technique. The advantages of this may be due to imitative learning, as over time the young animal learns what it should do in the yoke by following the trained ox.”
Jesus said, “Take my yoke and learn from Me.” Do you see what Jesus is offering us? He is inviting us to become yoked to Him so that, just as the young animal learns from the older animal, we learn from Him and that is how we find rest. It is not only a beautiful image but it takes a tremendous burden from us. We don’t have to figure it out on our own. We are not alone. We don’t have to search the Scripture for hidden codes. We are not alone. We don’t have to try to make ourselves acceptable to God or gin up our feelings in search of a religious experience. We are not alone. We simply yoke ourselves next to Him and whatever He is doing we do it with Him. And let me tell you there is a vast difference between trying to do things FOR Him and doing things WITH Him. I have tried it both ways and it is almost like having two separate religions.
What does the rest that He promised look like? Let’s go back to the things that make us weary and burdened and see.
We find rest when Jesus frees us from legalism. As mentioned in our collect for the day He boils it all down to loving God and loving our neighbor. That’s covers it all. You don’t have to fret that you are violating the Sabbath when you toss the football with your son on a Sunday afternoon.
We find rest when Jesus frees us from self-righteousness by showering us with the mercy of God. There is a story of a mother approaching Napoleon on behalf of her son. The young soldier had committed the same violation twice and was sentenced to death. The mother asked Napoleon for mercy and Napoleon said that the boy had done nothing to deserve mercy. The mother replied, “I’m not asking for mercy because he deserves it, I am asking for mercy because I am asking for it.” Napoleon set the soldier free. We need to keep at the front of our minds that we receive God’s mercy not because we deserve it but simply because we ask for it. Yoked with Christ the Father’s love flows to us both. The Psalmist said, “The Lord is loving to everyone and His compassion is over all His works.”
What about guilt and unforgiveness? We find rest from them as we heard in the lesson from Romans because there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world. When He was nailed to that cross our guilt was nailed there with Him. As the prophet put it, though our sins are as scarlet we will be washed whiter than snow.
In terms of unforgiveness, we find rest from it because God loosing us from out debts frees us to loose those who are indebted to us. I think Fr. BE is right when he says that forgiveness is the most basic act of a Christian. We forgive as we have been forgiven. We forgive because we have been forgiven.
Lastly what about fear anxiety over the future? Jesus addressed that directly in the Sermon on the Mount and tells us how to find rest here. “Consider the lilies…Look at the birds of the air…are you not much more valuable than they?” Then Jesus ends the analogies with two great zingers. “Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?…Therefore do not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” Worry about the future serves absolutely no purpose but only manages to bring tomorrow’s trouble into today. How do we not worry about tomorrow? Yoked to Christ we trust Whom He trusted. He had absolute confidence in His heavenly Father and this too we can learn from Him.
Ex NFL player Tim Tibow was being interviewed by the Gainesville Sun about his future now that he is no longer playing football. He said, “I’ve said this a few times, I don’t know what the future holds, but I do trust who holds my future.” Three things about that line. First, I don’t think that Tim Tibow originated that saying. Second, if I am quoting a football player it is proof that these are the last days. And third, it is a great line and worthy of being repeated often. “I don’t know what the future holds, but I do trust who holds my future.”
So Jesus is not offering us just any yoke. He is offering us HIS yoke. He is inviting us into a relationship with Him. We are not in this alone. The stole of a priest is to symbolize that the priest is yoked with Christ, but that is merely a model for you and not the sole right of a priest. You too can be yoked with Him and learn from Him and you too can find rest for your souls. Amen.