The Yoke of Rest

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
July 2, 2017

Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30 (CEB)
“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.’

18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19The 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.”

25At 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. 26Yes, 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. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Have you ever had one of those experiences where you were you were maybe checking out at the store, or dining in a restaurant, and the cashier, or waiter, or server was 100% rude? Or maybe it’s gone the other way. Maybe there’s been a day when, after being on hold with customer service for 45 minutes, you just let the person on the other end of the line have it. My suspicion is that we have all had such moments; both those times when we were the recipients of some crass behavior, or when we ourselves were crass toward others.

What I’ve realized from my own moments of “losing it” with others is that it happens most often when I’m having a bad day. So maybe I didn’t get enough sleep the night before and I’m tired, or maybe things are stressful at work, or perhaps Owen is particularly fussy, which in turn puts me on edge. Then I in turn take my stress, or anger, or frustration out on the people around me because I’m operating on a short fuse, so to speak. By recognizing those tendencies in my own life, then when somebody else “loses it” with me, or is rude to me, I first give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they are just having a bad day. And then I try and stay patient and calm, perhaps even encouraging, in my interactions with them so that I don’t “pile on” to their already troubled day.

The truth is, the stresses of the modern life are daunting. All of us, from the youngest to the oldest, from the corporate CEO to the retired factory worker are confronted regularly with a variety of trials, challenges, and burdens that far exceed our capacity to deal with them by ourselves. So, a lot of the time, we don’t deal with all these issues; or at least we don’t deal with them well. We try and face our challenges alone, or we try and bury them, and it then it manifests itself in these less than desirable feelings and behaviors that not only make us miserable, but those around us as well.

But here’s the thing, we are not meant to live in isolation, we are not meant to garner complete control over our lives. We are not meant to bear all of these trials, and challenges, and burdens of life alone. The lesson God desires us to understand is the requirement that we surrender our independent, “know-it-all” adult point of view and become vulnerable and dependent on God. And what Christ is describing here in this passage is the same sort of vulnerability as a child who depends on an adult. That is what Jesus means when he says, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies.” But here’s the thing: Christ isn’t asking us to make ourselves more vulnerable in the midst of already difficult and overwhelming situations. Instead, Christ promises us that if we can become vulnerable and dependent on God, then we will find Jesus there, ready and willing to help each of us carry our burdens.

Jesus’ words at the end of this passage are some of the most comforting in all of Scripture. “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” At first glance, this call is so appealing, especially as we think about all the difficulties we face in life and all the burdens we carry. When we are tired and worn out from bearing the heavy loads of life the invitation to rest is perhaps the greatest thing we could hope for. We want relief; it is only natural.

But here’s the strange truth of this passage; Jesus does not offer to help us in the way most of us want. What we want is for our troubles to be taken away, our burdens to be lifted. When we are carrying a heavy weight, what we want most is to pass that off to someone else. But what we desire and what we need are not necessarily the same thing, and God’s concern is for our needs. So Jesus’ promise is not that our load will be removed. Instead, Christ urges us to trust him to place a different weight on our shoulders; to take upon ourselves his yoke. Only then, with faith in a God who knows our needs and helps carry our loads, do we end up with a benefit that actually lightens our heavy loads and refreshes our souls.

We don’t see yokes very often these days, if at all. The plowing oxen of earlier days have been replaced by sophisticated tractors. But understanding the yoke and how it was used will help us understand Jesus’ words here. A yoke is a heavy, solid wooden bar that has two loops hanging from it. The loops go around the necks of animals (like oxen or donkeys), and the yoke sits on the shoulders of the animals, joining them together. The yoke really has two functions. First, the work load is obviously easier when divided between two animals. But also, yokes were used by farmers to train inexperienced animals for their work. So less experienced beasts of burden would be teamed up with more experienced animals so that they could learn how to pull the weight of the plow. “Put on my yoke and learn from me.”

Jesus knows our burden and Jesus shares our yoke. Through Christ, we learn how to do our own work, and we experience the rest that comes when we work with him. By faith, we are partnered with Jesus and we are taught how to balance and maneuver this difficult and tricky life from the one who knows best and who has our best interests in mind. It seems strange that to experience rest we actually have to take on a new burden. But Jesus promises that by walking closer to him, the weight of this world will be lifted and we will find rest in the midst of what would otherwise be a long and lonely journey.

You know, one of the great temptations of this life is to “take the easy way out.” When we are carrying a burden, we don’t want anyone to throw another weight into our arms. When we are stressed out at work, we don’t want to take on the overtime hours. When we are tired and worn out, we don’t want to be running around doing errands or dealing with emergencies. But part of following Jesus is learning that we can’t have it both ways. We can’t live only by the standards and expectations of the world and at the same time expect some sort of other-worldly relief of our burdens. It seems kind of confusing, but that’s what Jesus is getting at in the beginning of this passage this morning when he says, “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’” Then Jesus goes on to describe how the people had one set of standards and expectations for John the Baptist, and then later an entirely different set of standards and expectations for Jesus. We can’t have it both ways. We need the wisdom and guidance that Jesus offers.

If we want to experience the rest that Jesus promises, then it means we have to be willing to take upon us his yoke, the burden of God’s kingdom, even as we deal with the weight of this world. And if we are willing to put this yoke upon our shoulders, we will stand side-by-side with Jesus, and we will learn from him as we face all the trials and challenges of this world. The lesson of the yoke is learning how to get in sync with Jesus; Christ whose presence balances the weight of our pressures. By modeling Christ’s own grace, forgiveness, and love as we carry the yoke of Jesus, we learn to navigate our challenges and walk in wisdom. It is a relief that this world cannot give. The burdens we carry are not meant to crush us, but to make us stronger. The purpose of the struggles in life is always to bring us into a deeper relationship with the God who knows us better than we know ourselves.

When what we are going through seems beyond our ability to carry, that is exactly the time when faith is calling us to surrender our way and to trust God’s way; to place upon ourselves the yoke of Christ. Perhaps our burdens seem too much for us because we were never meant to carry them alone. The struggles we bear are not meant to crush us, and indeed, when we are yoked with Christ, they will not crush us, but will build us up and maybe even lead us in paths we wouldn’t ordinarily choose on our own. A well-known proverb says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. Know him in all your paths and he will keep your ways straight.”

We can try and make our own way in this world. We can try and walk the path before us bearing our burdens alone, but ultimately it will all prove too much, more than we can take on our own. If what we want is rest, relief from our burdens, then we must trust Jesus. We must yoke ourselves to him and have faith that Christ alone will help us carrying our load and find rest.

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