The Easy Yoke
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
July 3, 2011
Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30 (NIV)
“To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”
25 At that time 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. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.
27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
I spent this past week up at Camp Lookout as one of the Ministers in Residence. There were just about 100 campers camping this week, and around 40 paid staff and volunteers working around the clock to make sure everyone had tons of fun. Numbers-wise, it was the biggest week of the year. It was also the fourth straight week of camp, and the last week before a weeklong break for the counselors. The majority of the campers there were 5th and 6th grade, and I don’t think I have to tell you that they were a raucous bunch! Full of life and energy, among the 90 or so of them, they never ceased to make us laugh…or to annoy us. We spent the week doing all sorts of things with the 5th and 6th grade campers, not to mention the twelve high school-age kayakers and the five young day campers. We swam, skateboarded, mountain biked, made crafts, and led the group in devotions and worship every day. It was tiring! Ken, Mary Ellen, and I were sleeping before our heads hit the pillow just about every night, and we’re still catching up this weekend! Thank goodness tomorrow is a holiday!
As we went through the week, I thought often of the fact that as tiring as the experience was for the three of us, the counselors must be experiencing that four-fold or more. In their fourth week of camp and anticipating a well-deserved vacation, I sensed that this week of camp was very difficult for the counselors. As always, they did their jobs with enthusiasm and precision, but you could also see their general weariness and occasional frustration with the kids. The excitement with which I saw the counselors jumping around and dancing just a few weeks ago had sort of worn off. By the time Friday rolled around, they were ready to be done! If we were tired, they must’ve been exhausted!
There is a difference, you know, between being tired and being exhausted. We get tired when we don’t get enough sleep, or when we are particularly active, or maybe when we don’t get enough vitamins. Exhaustion occurs when those things happen over and over and over again, back-to-back-to-back. We also get exhausted when we are stressed, or burned-out. It all makes us feel so weary. Exhaustion happens when we are continually carrying a burden – whether physically or mentally.
I don’t think I have to tell you that Jesus knows something about carrying heavy burdens. We heard his words in our gospel reading just a few moments ago. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” When Jesus bid the weary and burdened to come to him, he was addressing all who were weighed down by oppressive religious rules and regulations. They were weary of trying to find acceptance by God and some had even given up trying. When he claimed that his yoke is easy and his burden light, Jesus meant that he could release them from the man-made additions to God’s law, not the righteous demands of the law itself.
You see; Jesus was speaking to people who were burdened by the excessive demands of those who claimed to interpret God’s law. The rabbis spoke regularly of the yoke of the law, which for many was a burden they could not carry. But in this invitation, Jesus offers another kind of yoke: not one that is easy in the usual sense, but a yoke that does not chafe because Christ offers his love and grace and mercy to help carry the burden. It is not that Christ is less demanding than the rabbis, but that he graciously helps his followers carry the load and get the job done.
I think it’s important for us to really pay attention to what Jesus was saying to the crowds when he spoke to them about the “easy yoke.” I believe it’s easy for us to interpret this passage as an offer from Jesus to take care of all our problems. Can’t carry that load? Don’t worry, just set it down where you are and Jesus will take care of it. Is work getting to be too much? Don’t get stressed about it, Jesus will make sure your work gets done. To overstate it just a bit, it’s easy to interpret this invitation from Jesus as an opportunity to be lazy because Jesus will take care of all the burdens in our lives. But that’s not what Jesus’ invitation is about at all; in fact, it’s quite the opposite!
As we hear this invitation from Jesus, we also have to remember all his teachings about discipleship as well. “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” “Go, sell everything you have, and give the money to the poor.” “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” That’s certainly not an opportunity to be lazy, and it’s definitely not easy!
But listen again to what Jesus says, ““Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.” Jesus is not saying that if we come to him and follow him we will be able to take off our yoke and walk through the rest of our lives completely unburdened. What Jesus is really saying is that if we come to him, we can carry his yoke, which is easy and light compared to the yoke of the law and the demands of the world. And Jesus’ yoke is easy and light because of his grace and love for us.
As a carpenter, Jesus undoubtedly made many yokes. He knew how important it was to make the yoke fit well. A beast with a poorly-fitting yoke could not effectively do the job. It would chafe and burn too much. Christ doesn’t free us from the service of God, but he makes a yoke for us that fits so well the task seem easy. It’s not that Jesus demands any less of us, but that he graciously helps his followers. We don’t have to carry our burden alone.
How many of us need to hear that invitation this morning? How many of us are exhausted, heavy-burdened? How many of us need to change out our yokes; maybe for a second or even a third time? We are stressed by the demands of our jobs or our families. We have been run-ragged by the never-ending demands of life in the 21st century. Or maybe we’ve made burdens for ourselves, even in our efforts to follow Christ and bear his yoke. Maybe we are more like that crowd listening to Jesus than we realize, laden by the demands of the law, the restrictions we put on ourselves, the act of doing church, rather than being church. We never take time to pause and refuel, and now we are weary. Have we forgotten the God of grace? Have we forgotten that there is nothing we can ever do to earn or deserve that grace? What is it we need to let go of so that we can take on the yoke of Christ? How many of us need the help of Christ on this day?
“Come to me,” he says, “all of you who are weary and burdened.” This is the invitation that allows us to pull back the curtain and see who God the Father really is, and we are encouraged to come into his loving, welcoming presence. And as we come, burdened as we are, we have to come realizing that we will not suddenly be relieved of all our duties and freed to do as we please; nor will we be able to continue as we have. Now that doesn’t mean that Christ will stand over us like a policeman, or be cross with us like an angry schoolteacher. He won’t even burden us with ridiculous and unnecessary religious rules and order. Rather, Christ will fall into stride with us. In his grace and love, he will fit us with a new, lighter, and easier yoke. Then, he will point us in a new direction, and with the yoke around him as well, he will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with us as we walk a new path.
It is not that the burden is easy to carry; but it is laid on us in love, it is meant to be carried in love, and love makes even the heaviest burden light. When we remember the love of God, when we know that Christ carries our burdens with us and that our greatest burden is to love God and to love others, then the burden becomes wonderfully easy and light. There is an old story, which tells how a man came upon a little boy carrying a still smaller boy, who was lame, upon his back.
“That’s a heavy burden for you to carry,” said the man.
“That’s not a burden,” came the answer. “That’s my little brother.”
The burden which is given in love and carried in love is always light.
Christ has taken on the greatest burdens, so that he can help us take on ours. Let us remember that as we get ready now to share in this Lord’s Supper. And as we eat the bread and drink the cup today, may we know the love and grace of Christ Jesus our Lord, who places upon us a new yoke and gives us new life. As we prepare to share in Holy Communion, hear again Christ’s invitation. “Come. All of you who are weary and burdened.”