July 9, 2017 – White Bluff Presbyterian Church
For some people, these are some of the most meaningful words in the whole gospel of Matthew. I often read them at funerals. They are not generally the main scripture lesson at the center of the service. They are a little too brief for that, and their view to the readers of the gospel does not lend itself to the bigger picture of meaning that we usually want to make when we are lifting up the promises of God in the face of death. But they almost always feel like they fit among the words at the very beginning of the service of witness to the resurrection celebrating the life of someone who has dies. They catch people where they are as they enter the funeral service: they name the weariness, the heaviness, and the burden of grief, and if we don’t name those feelings which press deep on our souls when we are missing a person we have lost, then we run the risk that the whole rest of the service will be irrelevant.
“Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” But the brilliance of these words is not just that they speak to us in times of sharp grief. The brilliance is in the way they capture the gospel, the good news of Jesus, and invite us into that good news in many different seasons of our lives.
Certainly, there are times when our souls need rest. Those times when we stare death square in the face are among those. Or really when we face any significant change, and we are overwhelmed with nostalgia for the way things used to be but can never be again, we can feel the need for rest. But rest is a need at other times, too. Jesus talked about a couple of those times in the rest of the passage we just read.
He talked about those times when we keep trying and keep trying but nothing ever seems to be good enough. For him, those were times when he confronted “this generation.” It seemed like the people around him were like fickle children playing with the passersby in the town square. John the Baptist came out living in the wilderness, wearing his sackcloth, and throwing his ashes. He was the representation of severe, strict religion. He cried out to people that they were not living right, and he warned them that judgment was coming on them, so they needed to straighten out. He was in the classic role of the prophets; he was everything anyone might expect a man speaking the word of the Lord to be. But like those silly children in the square, the people criticized him and rejected him as too severe; no one wanted to listen to all of that mournful, wailing crying out.
Then Jesus came along, and he was different. He said he came to proclaim good news, and he did. He talked about blessings. He gathered with people and handed out snacks so everyone can have a good time. He invited everyone to join in, no matter which side of the tracks they were from or what they did for a living, no matter whether everyone respected them or no one wanted to give them the time of day. And the people criticized him too, again sounding like those mocking children. They said he was too loose. He needed to drink less wine, he needed to go to fewer parties, he needed to dole out fewer blessings, and he needed to be more strict with those sinners and cheats. There was just no pleasing the present generation of spoiled brats.
And similarly, we sometimes feel like we can’t make anyone happy. The boss always seems to want more, and when she doesn’t demand too much, the people above her do. The kids’ needs never seem to end. Even the things of our lives feel like they are never satisfied. The house is always nagging at us that something else needs to be fixed, the car scolds us for our neglect by making that funny noise. There is no time or energy left for valuable relationships which need to be tended to, and wasn’t I supposed to help with some program or another at the church this week? Nothing ever seems to get done, no one ever seems to really be satisfied, and more demands to do more and more are piling up. It is unsatisfying, it is impossible, and it is exhausting.
It is impossible to please all the people. But when you do not give them what they want, Jesus went on, they reject you and your ways of life. In fact, as he prayed to God, he expressed the truth that such rejection is inevitable. Most people are not going to understand the joy and the freedom which come from a commitment to the life of obedience; in fact, most people are going to see “joy and freedom” as contradictory to “commitment and obedience.” Most people are going to be indifferent when you try to tell them that in Jesus Christ you have discovered the best news the world has ever heard, no matter what kind of signs of power and mercy you show. Vulnerability is powerful, and it is better to think about care and mercy rather than profit margins and how to eliminate the competition. But the people that everyone says are really smart will never understand that; only the people who are willing to have trust, hope, and faith can understand. Jesus thanked God for these realities; he said, “I thank you, Father…because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” But I wonder if gratitude was not the first thing he felt as he realized these things. I would probably have to force myself to praise God for the resistance and rejection which comes with faith in Jesus.
There are times when our souls just need a rest. When the demands which are impossible to meet overwhelm us, and when we face resistance and rejection for our commitment and obedience to Jesus, we need to hear Jesus’ invitation: come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. This invitation is beautiful; it speaks to a place deep inside of us, where we confront the most difficult limits of ourselves: grief and death, of trying and failing, of resistance and rejection. You will find rest for your souls. Thanks be to God.
But the brilliance of this passage is not just that Jesus offered us a gift as profound as that rest for our souls. The brilliance is that he didn’t stop there. Because sometimes we need to give up our burdens and rest, but sometimes, we need something more, too.
Jesus continued: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” A yoke is what tied the oxen to the plow; it was a tool of work. The rest which Jesus offered was not merely an end to work. What he offered was an end to that unsatisfying work, with its demands that were unending and its consequences of resistance and rejection from others. That was the kind of rest for our souls which he invited us into. But that unsatisfying work is replaced with a new kind of work. When you drop the heavy, exhausting yoke of that work, you have another yoke to pick up. Don’t worry, he said; “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The new yoke will not be like the old one. But it is work nonetheless.
Sometimes we need to hear that the tiresome, demanding work is over for us. Sometimes we need to hear that the resistance and rejection we face is through. But sometimes, we also need to hear that there is still work for us to do. The new work is meaningful work. It is work which makes an impact. It is work which aligns us with the will of God; it is work which empowers us to be a part of making the universe the way it was created to be. It is work which knows us deeply, both in our capabilities and in our limitations, and so it is work which does not put unreasonable expectations on us. It is the work of loving God and loving our neighbors; it is the work of prayer and worship, of justice and freedom, of peace and compassion; it is the work of mercy and care, both in little ways and big ways, for all people. It is not work which is done to keep up with the demands of others. It is not work which is always respected by the world. But it is easy work and light work, not in the sense that it doesn’t require a real sacrifice of effort, of money, of energy, and of time from us. The new work is easy and light in the sense that it is work that will nourish our souls. One commentator painted an image of the yoke of Jesus as a yoke designed for two animals. It is that bar which both animals work together to push in order to get the plow to penetrate and break up the tough soil. And the other one in that yoke with us is Jesus himself, pushing and working right alongside us to till and to plant and to fertilize and to cause the crops to flourish.
Sometimes we need to hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Sometimes we need to hear Jesus say, “Take my yoke upon you.” That is the brilliance of what Jesus said; he said both. He said we will find rest for your souls when you need that rest, and he said that we will find work for our souls when we need work. Most importantly, he said that we are all invited, whether we feel overwhelmed by the demands of the world, whether we feel resistance and rejection around every act of trust and faith, whether we feel the need to have someone alongside us who will guide us in tilling whatever soil God has given us to till.
And so my prayer this morning is that we will take up Jesus’ brilliant invitation here: Come to me. I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.