Sermon on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 from July 3rd 2011 at the River of Life service on the Nantahala
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.
At 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; yes, Father, for such is your gracious will. 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.
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.”
Sermon: The Yoke of Jesus
“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”
I don’t know about you, but I’m having a difficult time with the end of this passage. “Take my yoke upon you, because its easy and light” Maybe when Jesus was addressing the crowds that day he forgot about so many of the other things he had been preaching about…
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my behalf”
“If your right eye cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away”
“Do not resist an evildoer, if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also”
“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
Doing all that seems pretty hard to me, and those verses are only from one chapter in Matthew’s Gospel… So how is it that in today’s passage Jesus tells us that His yoke is easy and light?
Before we try and wrestle with that question, let us first look at what a yoke is. In its most basic form a yoke is a piece of wood that hangs around the necks of animals as they carry a plow through fields, or the shoulders of a human as they carry objects. Throughout the OT, a yoke was used metaphorically to explain certain Jewish customs. Following the Law, or the Torah, was described as wearing a yoke; it was difficult but it had rewards. The people of the OT lived in a nearly complete agriculturally based economy, and the image of the yoke was one that everyone could associate with. They would have been able to tangibly imagine the yoke of the oxen carrying a plow through a field, or remember the feeling of the wood digging into their back as they carried buckets of water. Though the yokes produced some level of suffering, they were also responsible for accomplishing something, for instance a plowed field ready for planting or water for the family.
For a modern rendering of a “yoke” we might consider our email inboxes. Email is necessary for accomplishing many tasks, but at times it can be such a burden, sifting through all your messages, responding to those that are most necessary, and worrying about those we keep putting off. Just like the yoke of the Old Testament, I think we can all tangibly imagine our inboxes and the stress that often accompanies them.
So, back to Jesus then, how can his “yoke” be easy? Imagine Jesus emailing you and asking if you have been turning the other cheek, giving away your possessions, and loving your enemies. Would you be able to respond with assurance, or would you let that email simmer in your inbox for a while?
The wearing of the yoke, as viewed in the OT, was the outward sign of an inward relationship. By obeying the laws of the covenant: circumcision, dietary laws, animal sacrifice, and so forth, each person was testifying to the inward life of holiness with God. In this morning’s passage, Jesus is offering a different yoke than the harsh legalistic system of Torah.
Jesus came to know his father the way any good Son does; not by studying books about him, but by living in his presence, listening for his voice, and learning from him as an apprentice does from his master, by watching and imitating. When Jesus addressed the crowds that day he had already discovered that the wise and learned were getting nowhere, and the ordinary people, in fact the less than ordinary: sinners, tax collectors, were discovering God simply by following Him.
This is a radical shift in perception from the metaphors of the O.T. Jesus’ yoke comes from his mercy and love, rather than strict obedience to law codes. In this way Jesus presents a wonderful paradox; by placing on our shoulders the yoke of Christ we are given a profound freedom. The burden that Christ wanted to free his followers from is the burden of religion. The Jewish people of Jesus’ day predicated their lives on obedience to the Torah. They lived and breathed the Hebrew Scriptures and lived by and through them. Your relationship with God was defined by how you followed the rules. Throughout the Gospels we see evidence of this: most of the questions asked of Jesus reflect this mentality. Teacher, what is the greatest of the commandments? Teacher, how might I inherit eternal life? Teacher, how can we sit at you right and left in your kingdom? Though he had continually answered their questions, they never seem to quite get it. Finally, after rebuking them for ignorantly missing the point, Jesus tells the crowds “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.” Simple.
Just as Jesus hoped to free his followers from the burden of religion in the first century, I think his message is still incredibly pertinent today.
Now I know that this sounds ridiculous, because if Christianity is a religion, then why would Jesus want to free us from it?
Today, people are still living out their Christian lives based upon a legalistic system. I cannot tell you how many people ask me nearly the same questions asked of Jesus in the Gospels: Taylor, what do I have to do to get Jesus to love me? Taylor, how am I supposed to pray? Taylor, how can I get into heaven? All these questions are based on the assumption that there is a finite list of duties necessary to be completed for fruition.
Religions, in this light, are based upon laws and affirmations. They demand ritual activities, dogmatics, and strict moral obedience. The laws of religions are they greatest attempt that mankind has ever made in the hope of overcoming anxiety and fear by promising immortality for following guidelines. Religions are often created to help explain the unexplainable. This is exactly what Christ wants to free us from, but it is also very difficult to let go of. It is easy to follow a checklist version of religion, maintaining a “perfect” life based upon following rules and creeds, but it is absolutely impossible to follow all of them. We see this everywhere, in every religion, groups of people under innumerable laws, which they cannot fulfill. They either flee from these rules, or they change them to fit their situation. This is why the church is not universal. We have accepted a legalistic version of Christianity at the expense of destroying the very fabric of what it meant to be Christian: lived reality.
Christianity is not supposed to be a religion. Following Jesus is not about following guidelines or rules but living into a new reality. We follow Christ not because he established a new religion, but because He is the end of religion. He transcends religion. He is above religion. Christ did not come to institute new laws, but to fulfill the law. We spread the call of Christ not for ourselves, but rather so that we can exist beyond ourselves.
We must recognize that following Christ is more about “being” than it is about “doing.” Action follows being. Try to imagine a world where souls were really at rest, imagine the amount of good that could flow forth from people whose souls were finally unburdened, imagine the stress of your life floating away.
Two summers ago I took a group of college students to Taize, and Ecumenical Monastery in Burgundy, France. Taize is a place where thousands of young people gather every summer to experience a monastic lifestyle. When we arrived, there were 5,000 other young adults from all over Europe camping out in the French countryside.
The only requirement of the people staying at Taize, is to participate in the prayerful worship services three times a day: morning, noon, and night. We would enter a sanctuary and sing from a hymnal written in every language imaginable so that each person could understand the words and participate with the whole. After spending a few days at the monastery one of my goods friends pulled me aside after the morning worship and said to me, “Taylor, do you know why I like it here so much? I like it here because no one is telling me what to do. There is no preacher in a pulpit shaking his finger at me or trying to cram some moral code down my throat. I know the stories about Jesus, and this to me feels like what it should be. I like it here because I simply get to be.”
Now, I’m not advocating for us to institute a life of monasticism in our lives, but I think we can learn a lot from the Taize community. For them, the emphasis is on one’s being. They spends their time in daily worship so that they might reorient their being, and from that a new creative life flows forth. Taize is a uniquely wonderful place, but we can also bring it to our own lives.
Truly I tell you, it will be difficult following Christ. Putting on his yoke is just like taking up your own cross to follow him; sometimes it will hurt and it will be hard. But, when Jesus calls us to come to him when we are weary with heavy burdens, he is not only calling us to Himself, but to the living community of his body, the church. When I say church here, I don’t mean big steeples or even Slow Joe’s café; I mean the people you are sitting next to. One of the most revolutionary parts of Jesus’ ministry was calling us to live for one another. He did not call us to Christianity, but he called us to a new sense of being.
You don’t need to wise and intelligent to find Jesus. You don’t need to be a theologian or scholar to know who He is. No amount of knowledge or intellect will ever compare to the rest that we can find through faith in Jesus. Following Christ is about humbling yourself like a child, living into a new and blessed reality, looking upon the world in an unbiased manner, loving those around you, and experiencing God as you experience life.
Come to Jesus.
If you are weary and carrying heavy burdens, bring them to Christ.
Forget everything; doctrines, creeds, beliefs, doubts, achievements, failures
Take a breath and consider your “being”
Nothing is demanded of you, no conceptions of God, and no goodness in yourselves, not your being religious, not your being a Christian, not your being intelligent, and not your being moral. But what is demanded is only your being open and willing to accept what is given to you, a new being, the being of love and justice and truth, as it is manifest in Jesus whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light.
John Wesley, from whom came United Methodism, preached a sermon in London once about “the one thing needful.”
The one thing needful, Wesley said, was the restoration of the image of God that was implanted within each of us in our unique lives. I can think of no greater way to restore the one thing needful, the image of God in our lives, than finding rest in Jesus.
I offer this to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.