Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Yoke of Freedom

Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We continue this week in the gospel of Matthew, with some of the most winsome and grace-filled words of Jesus. Countless people have found assurance and peace in these words. But before we begin to read in Matthew, let’s first go back to the book of Exodus, the 32nd and 33rd chapters. You probably remember that the book of Exodus is about exactly that – the exodus of the Israelite people out of Egypt and into the promised land, out of slavery and into freedom. On the journey, God gives the people the law, including the ten commandments, the fourth of which is “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” However, there was a bit of time between their exodus from Egypt and their entry into Canaan – forty years, to be exact. During that time, the people are in the wilderness, led by Moses.

Moses meets with God, who appears as a pillar of cloud in “the tent of meeting,” where, Exodus 33 says, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” In one of those conversations, Moses says to God, “show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.” And God says, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” “I will give you rest,” God said, speaking as one speaks to a friend. Let’s keep in mind that promise from the second book of the Old Testament as we listen for the promise in the New Testament. At the beginning of Chapter 11 in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus has been scolding the crowd for their failure to repent and their unkind reception of his messengers. Then, he stops, and changes tone.

Let’s listen for God’s word in Matthew 11: 25-30
25At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All 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. 28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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.”

Sometimes, the contemporary images Jesus used in his speeches may not work well for the 21st century. Unless you are involved in a primitive form of agriculture or transport, or have traveled in developing countries, you probably have never seen a yoke except in a museum. If your images of yokes are like mine, the heavy wooden bowed structures across the necks of beasts of burden, you may need a new image, or some unpacking of this yoke of which Jesus speaks. In fact, if you look in the thesaurus for synonyms of the word, you get words like burden, and bondage.

I confess that the yoke of oppression comes to my mind, the yoke of slavery spoken of in songs of freedom by those enslaved. Who wants to take on a yoke, even from Jesus? Sure, he says it is light, but you know there are all these rules, all these expectations, all these requirements of what you must do or say. At least, that is a common and popular understanding: following Jesus means following rules. 

But as I investigated the use of yokes, I realized that they can be something other than burdensome. A yoke distributes weight, whether it is between two animals or across the shoulders of one individual. With a yoke balancing and distributing the load, the work is easier, the heaviness eased, the burden lightened. With this yoke he mentions, Jesus is offering, as God did to Moses, the holy rest we find only in his presence. Jesus is not offering a new kind of work, but a new kind of rest.

But we are a people who believe in work, in carrying our own load – pulling our weight.. Too often we think we are accepting the offer Jesus makes, taking his yoke upon us, when we are actually just imposing another weight on ourselves. We think we are casting our cares on him when we actually are adding to our cares with religious work. Other times, we say we have let Jesus take our burdens, but when Jesus doesn’t seem to be acting fast enough, or in the way we want, or in a way we can control, we all too willingly take them up again. There is an old story about a young man driving a wagon along a country road. Up ahead, he sees an elderly farmer carrying a heavy bag of feed on his shoulders. As he comes alongside the old man, he stops and offers him a ride, saying, “your load is so heavy – why not let me take it in my wagon."  The elderly man accepts, and climbs into the wagon, but as they continue on the road, the young driver hears him groaning with effort. He turns to look, and sees that the elderly farmer has gotten into the wagon, but the heavy burden he carried is still on his shoulders!

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says,  “and I will give you rest”

This text is so familiar to many of us, but the imagery is so unfamiliar, that I think it may be helpful to hear how The Message, a Bible translation by Eugene Peterson, paraphrases Jesus’ words in verses 28-30. It isn’t long, so have a listen:

28 "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. 29 Walk with me and work with me - watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. 30Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."

I love that phrase – “the unforced rhythms of grace.” It conjures up a beautiful child dancing in a meadow of wildflowers; a young hawk circling lazily in the summer sky; a child, falling asleep in her mother’s arms, unafraid, peaceful. Jesus invites us into this space with him, a space unburdened by the demands of religion, free of the constraints of expectations, performance reviews, productivity reports, time sheets. Jesus calls us into this life of unforced rhythms, lived freely, and lightly.

Moses asked God, “Show me your ways,” and God offered Moses rest, rest that could be found in the presence of God, God offered liberation from slave labor and a new freedom in obedience to God’s commands. Jesus offers us, too, freedom from slavery to the world with a yoke of freedom that balances the burdens of life by evenly distributing the weight, carried between us and among us and with him. He makes the load light, the burden easy.

Jesus offers us rest in him, the rest that restores us, the rest that we yearn for, the very true rest we need so desperately and fight so frantically. Jesus invites us to come, to sit, to rest and be renewed. In a moment, we will come to the table for the Lord’s supper, where we receive a taste of that rest, and a foretaste of the banquet he has prepared for our final rest.

When I think of the invitation to this table, in the context of these words of Jesus, I see children racing into the kitchen from their games, jostling one another for a place, for a sandwich, for a cold drink.

When I hear Jesus calling us to come to him, to his table, I hear harvesters coming in from the fields, washing face and hands sighing with satisfaction as they take their seats at the table- tired, hungry, but fully at rest from their labors.

When Jesus says, “Come to me,” I smell the fragrance of pies baking and turkey roasting for a family gathering at a welcoming table.

I can feel the gentle swing of the hammock on a lazy July afternoon, and I know that Jesus is offering something we can receive only from him: a life lived freely and lightly, in the unforced rhythms of grace, bearing the yoke of freedom which only he can give, and which he carries for us when we cannot bear it alone.

Thanks be to God for holy rest.
Thanks be to God for the yoke of freedom.


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