Isaiah 61:1-7, Matthew 11:25-30
November 15, 2009
Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest unto your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29)
In Jesus’ time, a Rabbi would take on students. And those students were known as “disciples.” A rabbi would take on a group of disciples and teach them. That’s how the next generation of rabbis came to be. (There’s the potential joke there and about rabbis “multiplying” – like rabbits, but I couldn’t make it work!)
Anyway, when the disciple accepted the teaching of the rabbi, that was referred to as taking on “the rabbi’s yoke.” It was a reference to the yoke that oxen would wear over their necks – that big wooden double arched frame that helped them do their work. So, the rabbi’s “yoke” had to do with the “burden” of their teaching and learning. It had to do with their “labor” in the service of God. The stole of ministers is reminiscent of that ancient tradition. Well, in the rabbinical tradition, it was the rabbi’s yoke. And if a rabbi was a tough teacher, he was known to have had a “heavy yoke.”
To understand the ministry of Jesus, we need to know that much of that ministry took place in the context of the rabbinical tradition. In many places Jesus was referred to as “rabbi” – both seriously by his followers, and cynically by his detractors! So, in the place we read in Matthew, Jesus took that metaphor of “the rabbi’s yoke” and ran with it! He used it, as he often did with many things, as a teaching tool. And what he taught was that his “yoke” was easy, and his “burden” was light. And he offered rest to the weary.
Jesus offered to the world, and he still offers to the world, what the Old Testament writer Isaiah said about him hundreds of years before. “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” (Isaiah 61:1) In his later writings, Isaiah often paints that picture of the coming Messiah. He tells of the coming time when the people who were in exile will be restored, and their relationship with God renewed. And he told of the kind of people they should be!
My friends, Christianity has gotten a bad rap in our world. The outside world often sees us in the Church as being judgmental, exclusive (non-inclusive), sometimes hateful, and heaping burdens of expectations on the behavior of others. And unfortunately, I have to tell you, that is sometimes true. And don’t get me wrong here. As God’s people, we are encouraged to have a system of “personal discipline” – as we follow our rabbi, Jesus. But I think we need to be more careful about assuming that discipline for the world, and imposing it on people who don’t understand where it comes from, and who haven’t had a chance to understand the greater message of God’s love and grace. I think we need to be careful. Because if we turn people off, if we keep them away, then we’ll never have a chance to touch their hearts!
On a personal level, I have to tell you that it hurts my heart that our faith has gotten such a bad rap. Because it has so much to offer! And one of the main things it has to offer is the peace and rest to the soul that this world so desperately needs and craves!! Christianity offers what has been called “a safe harbor from the storms of a very troubled world!” And I believe that! But the other problems is that too often – and I’m talking to those in the church now – too often we don’t offer that safe harbor. Too often we have the same turmoil inside the church as outside. And then we wonder why people don’t want to steer their battered boats into our harbor! Too often this place which is actually called a “sanctuary” is not much of a sanctuary from the stress and turmoil of the world! We need to be sure we make it that! Too many people see too many churches as places of in-fighting and stress. And they don’t want any part of it! And sometimes I don’t blame them!
I want to reiterate today the message of Jesus. “Come unto me – come unto Jesus, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest…” I want us to remember that! I want us to know we are part of that. Because I also want to say to those of you who may not have had much of a Church experience that there is peace offered here. There is a safe harbor. There is sanctuary. We do follow a savior who said, “take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly, and you will find rest unto your souls”!
There are a lot of people in our world who “labor and are heavy laden,” as Jesus said. Think about what that looks like. What are those burdens? Is it our work schedules? That’s easy to get caught up in. I was just saying the other day that I don’t think there are 365 days in a year any more! It seems like we’re losing days, and we’re down below 300 now! Future events approach too quickly! Weeks seem like they only have 5 or 6 days, instead of 7. (And of course the day that is missing the most is the Sabbath. Which is the most important!) People are finding it harder and harder to separate work from home life. Companies are “expecting” more “dedication” than just “9 to 5.” And a “work-aholic” is the only kind of “aholic” in our world that is actually honored! Think about that. If you’re up for a job against someone who describes themselves as a workaholic, do you think you’ll get the job? Companies want to get the most out of the fewest people!
Even if we are able to separate work life from home life, it’s still not a help. Because our home life schedules are just as stressful, if not more so! Too many families are rarely together for meals. They’re pulled in so many directions that family time has faded into the background. And I’m telling you, I wouldn’t want to take on the schedule of some of our children!! Then add on top of all that the deteriorating relationships in this world. I’m talking about family strife, the loss of connection with our neighbors, co-worker troubles, and yes even Church conflict. It all adds up to a world of great turmoil! It’s a stormy sea out there. No ship can continually take that kind of beating without coming into a harbor!
We’re fast approaching the time of Christmas, a time we celebrate the coming of one who has been called “the Prince of Peace.” Yet even Christmas has become a time of great stress! We’re running around at this time of year, trying to do everything. There never seems to be enough time to get it all done, and meanwhile the clock is ticking down the “shopping days” like the ticking of a time bomb about to explode. (Along with our brains!) The angel’s announcement of “Peace on Earth, and Goodwill among men” seems almost a mockery.
Yet, to the many in our world who “labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus still offers rest. He still says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me. For I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest unto your souls.” Don’t we all need that? Don’t we yearn for rest unto our souls? Don’t our hearts need to be healed?
There are many, many brokenhearted people in this world. Maybe you’re one of them! Maybe you’re listening to this and thinking “Yeah, but you don’t know how bad my life really is!” And that’s true. I might not. But I do know that Jesus knows! And even in the worst of times he can offer rest. At the most terrible time in his disciples lives, he said something that was very reassuring, and important, and amazing. And I think he says the same thing to us!
They were in the upper room. Jesus was about to leave them. He was about to go to the cross. And that was going to be devastating to them! They had given three years of their lives to this rabbi. They had dropped everything to follow him, to take on his “yoke.” And they had come to believe he was to be the one Isaiah had written about. Their hopes had been growing along with the hopes of all their people that he was indeed the Messiah! All that was about to come crashing down around them. We cannot imagine what it was like for them to lose their leader, the embodiment of their hopes and dreams, and their best friend! To witness the cruel, sadistic, humiliating way he would die was beyond belief. To say they were broken hearted, would be the biggest understatement imaginable!
That was all about to happen. So before he left them, he wanted to tell them bad times were coming. He also said, “If you truly are my disciples, you will be persecuted.” That’s not terribly hopeful, is it? He knew what they would face in the early days of the Church, and his heart went out to them. And then he told them this. “In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)
Sometimes we think the world is overcoming us, don’t we? Sometimes it seems so “overwhelming.” And it seems like we can’t do anything about it. The burdens, the stresses, the storms are too much for us! We need a safe harbor. We need that “rest unto our souls!” We need sanctuary! We need to hear from one who says, “don’t worry. In the world you have tribulation, but I have overcome the world.”
Oh we may not always see that happening – at least not in the ways we might hope. But we can know it! We can trust it. We can lead others to it. We need to remember it. Jesus has overcome the world. He does offer us rest unto our souls. And, as he did for his disciples, he offers us peace. And as he said, it is “peace, not as the world gives.” So, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Neither let them be afraid.”
So, come unto Jesus, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and he will give you rest.
Eternal God, help us to know that peace that you offer us through Jesus our Lord. Help us to promote that peace, and to live in that joy, so that we may offer a safe harbor to the world. Give us hearts for those who are burdened, and who search for the peace and joy that you want for all of us. For we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.