Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Kind Yoke of Jesus (a sermon for July 6th on Matthew 11:25-30)

It’s often been said that your own home is the most difficult place to be a Christian. That’s because there’s no pretending there. Outside the home – with friends and work colleagues – you might be able to do a good job of hiding your weaknesses and besetting sins, but in your own home, with the people who know you best, that’s a lot harder.

I sometimes wonder what my kids will say about me at my funeral. They’ve definitely seen the truth about me, warts and all; they know my strengths, and they know my weaknesses as well. And I wonder how they’ll feel when they hear what other people, who maybe don’t know me so well, will have to say. Will they perhaps find themselves thinking, “Well, yes, I can see how you would believe that about my Dad, but then, you don’t know the whole story, do you?”

Maybe this illustration can give us some insight into what it felt like to be Jesus, walking around on the earth, hearing people saying things about God, and thinking to himself, “Well, yes, I can see why you might believe that, but you don’t know the whole story, do you?” Because of course Jesus, the Son of God, came to live among us to ‘show us the Father’ – to share the truth about God with human beings. And not just with any human beings: with God’s chosen people Israel, who had been learning about God’s ways for over a thousand years.

Was Jesus perhaps surprised by their lack of interest in the message he brought? It seems that he was. In Matthew 11:21 he reflects back on some of the cities in Galilee where he has been preaching and healing the sick. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes”. In other words, “If I did things like this among the pagan nations, they’d be turning to God by the thousands! So how come you folks don’t seem to be interested? How come you’re snoring through the whole thing?”

The problem, of course, was that God’s people didn’t think they needed any help learning about God, and they certainly didn’t need it from an amateur! Who did he think he was, telling them about God? They’d been studying the Torah all their lives, and they knew all the explanations the rabbis had given down through the centuries applying each general law to specific situations. And then along comes Jesus, an uneducated upstart with a strong Galilean accent, and presumes to instruct them about God. They must have thought, “Go away to rabbinical school for a decade, Jesus; then when you come back, we’ll talk!”

But Jesus’ knowledge of God came from a completely different source. Jesus had learned about God the way a son learns about his father – by living with him, by watching him at work and at play, by imitating him and learning to be like him. He was like an instinctive musician with perfect pitch, walking around among people who knew all about the history of music, but were entirely tone deaf themselves.

Think about how frustrating this must have been sometimes for Jesus! I’m a musician myself, and I have a pretty good ear as well. I can tell when my guitar is in tune or out of tune, even when no one else can hear it; I can tell when a singer is bang on, or flat or sharp. This isn’t something I’ve achieved by hard work, so I can’t take any credit for it; it’s something I was born with. And I often forget that other people don’t have it. It surprises me that they can’t hear the things that I can hear.

That must have been what it was like for Jesus to be walking around on this earth. We talk about people taking time to ‘discover who they are’. For Jesus, part of that process involved discovering that other people didn’t have the same kind of intimate knowledge of God that he had. There are some things about a father that only his child can know.

And so Jesus said these words in today’s gospel reading which sound so arrogant and shocking and exclusive to us: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27). The word for ‘handed over’ refers to the formal handing down of religious traditions from generation to generation. We would say, “The Anglican tradition has been handed down to us from our ancestors”. But Jesus speaks in a much more direct way: “I didn’t get it from my ancestors; I got it from my Father in heaven”.

If you don’t accept this view of the relationship between Jesus and God, then you’re going to have a hard time with what Jesus says here. Matthew, and all the writers of the New Testament, don’t see Jesus as just one religious teacher among many. They see him as having a unique relationship with God that no other human being can claim: Jesus is the Son of God in a unique sense. Yes, of course, the Bible talks about us being the sons and daughters of God, but its clear from this passage that Jesus can use that description of himself in a way that we can’t. He is ‘the’ Son, “and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”

There’s a paradox in these words of Jesus. On the one hand, there’s an exclusive claim Jesus makes: he has inside knowledge about God that no one else has ever had, before or since. But then immediately afterwards comes this wonderfully inclusive invitation: the Son has no interest in keeping his knowledge of the Father to himself. He wants to share it with everyone. He invites everyone to come to know God as he knows God, and so to find rest and release from the burdens they are carrying. And so he says,
“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” (vv.28-30).

It’s tempting for me to preach on this passage of Scripture in such a way as to offer you Jesus, the ultimate stress reduction specialist! But if I was to do that, I wouldn’t be faithful to the text. Why? Because the kind of burdens that Jesus has in mind here are primarily religious burdens. Jesus is saying to his hearers, ‘The kind of religion you’ve learned from the experts doesn’t take the load off your shoulders; rather, it increases it. That’s not what I’m offering you today. I’m offering you a relationship with God that can give you rest from the burdens religion has laid on your back’.

What are these burdens? I think of people who live in fear that, no matter how hard they try to keep God’s commandments, they’re never going to measure up. They’re never going to be good enough. They see God as a cruel taskmaster standing over their shoulders laying the burden of commandment after commandment on them, and if they slip up and don’t pull their weight - no heavenly reward for them! Some people are so scarred by this kind of religion that they turn away from God for the rest of their lives, never suspecting that the God they are turning away from is not the God Jesus told us about.

Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were probably tired of the weight of the religious traditions they’d inherited from their ancestors. What was the specific way in which an animal should be sacrificed? The Jewish Law said not to work on the Sabbath, but what exactly was ‘work’? Was walking ‘work’, and if so, how far could you walk before it became work? What was the exactly correct way of washing your hands in order to be ritually clean before a meal? And so it went on – hundreds of ritual laws which had very little to do with loving God and loving your neighbour. But if you were a shepherd and had sheep to look after, how could you avoid breaking the Sabbath? Or if you didn’t have access to clean water, how could you do the correct ritual washings? And so, for some people, the law stopped being a road to God, and became instead a roadblock.

Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (v.30). Think about this word ‘yoke’. We’re talking about oxen here, and the wooden contraption that binds two of them together and allows them to cooperate in pulling a plough. Jesus was a carpenter; he’d probably made a good few yokes in his time, and he might even have advertised them with a slogan like “My yokes fit!”

This helps us to understand another paradox in these verses: in verse 28 Jesus promises us rest, but by the end of the passage he’s talking about us bearing his yoke, and that doesn’t sound like rest! But a point of translation might help us here. Verse 30 in the NRSV reads, ‘my yoke is easy’, but the original Greek that Matthew wrote literally means, ‘my yoke is kind’. Some translators have suggested that it might better be translated as ‘my yoke fits well’. In other words, the yoke of discipleship Jesus lays on us is something that is suited exactly to us, and our condition. It’s not a way of life that adds to our burdens of guilt and fear and tiredness; rather, it sets us free, because it teaches us the way God designed for us to live in the first place.

How does this work? Well, it might be interesting to contrast the approach Jesus took with that of the Pharisees. As we’ve seen, the Pharisees were the great embellishers of the Law; they added thousands of traditional interpretations to help people apply the commandments to their daily lives. Jesus took the opposite approach: he was the great simplifier. He pointed to the heart of the Law, the most important commandments, within which the others were to be interpreted. In Matthew 23, for instance, he says,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the Law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others” (Matthew 23:23).
And of course, most famously of all, he summarized the Law in terms of the two greatest commandments:
“ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Jesus teaching doesn’t always lighten the demands of the Law; anyone who reads the Sermon on the Mount knows that at times he makes even greater demands - not just no committing adultery, but no lust either; not just no murdering anyone, but no getting angry with them either. But always his teaching focuses on the transformation of the human being into the image of God, or what Paul called ‘the new creation’ (2 Corinthians 5:17). And the heart of all of that is love – God’s love for us, first of all, and then our love for God and our neighbour.

I’m reminded of the story of John Wesley, who started the Methodist movement in the eighteenth century. He had been brought up as a very religious person and devised all sorts of rules for himself. He was even ordained as a minister and went to the American colonies as a missionary. But his legalistic religion was a complete failure: it didn’t attract converts, and he was beginning to realise that it wasn’t working for him, either. And so he returned to England feeling like a failure.

But that wasn’t the end of Wesley’s story. On the ship he met some Moravian Christians who impressed him with the joy of their faith, which seemed very far removed from the legalistic religion Wesley knew. Back in London, in May 1738, he attended a prayer meeting of Moravian Christians. Someone was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, and the light went on for Wesley: he realised that Christianity wasn’t a scary religion of rule-keeping but a celebration of the love of God in Christ. He said that he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’. Years later, he would describe it as ‘exchanging the faith of a servant for the faith of a son’.

That can happen for you and me as well. We can discover a Christian life that’s not about keeping rules out of fear of God’s punishment; rather, it’s about learning to follow Jesus joyfully, in gratitude for the love of God that has been poured out on us through Christ. It’s about knowing that we are loved by God, adopted as God’s children, gifted with God’s Holy Spirit – not because we earned it, but because God loves to give his gifts to his sons and daughters. Legalistic religion can’t give us that assurance, but the true gospel of Christ can do that, because it lifts our burdens and puts a song in our hearts.

Do you have that song in your heart this morning? Let’s close by listening again to these words of Jesus, these words of invitation that go out to everyone:
“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 kind, and my burden is light”.


So as we come forward to receive the bread and wine of Holy Communion this morning, let’s lay down the burdens that false religion might have put on our shoulders, and let’s thankfully accept the kind yoke of Jesus, so that we can learn from him, and find rest for our souls. Amen.

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