Yoking

Matthew 11:28-30
David A. Davis
July 9, 2017

Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and 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 light.” Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Quite a quote. A memory verse of all memory verses. When it comes to the words, the teaching, the promise of Jesus, it has to be near the top, way out front, a greatest hit. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. It’s the nectar of faith. The heart of the gospel. It goes right to the core. A fundamental. A basic. Right from the primer when it comes to life in Christ. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. Iconic. Epoch. Seminal. Classic Jesus. “Come to me, all you that are weary and 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 light.”

I’ve never preached a sermon on these verses, this quote from Jesus. That seems odd to me. I checked the Excel sheet that keeps track of all my sermons here at Nassau. No sermon on Matthew 11:28-30. I went back through my card catalogues of the first 14 years. No sermon on “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” I’ve used it over and over again as an invitation to the Table. I’m sure I have read it as the scripture lesson in worship many, many times. It has certainly been a part of the scriptures that tell of God’s promise and comfort at memorial services and in cemeteries. But no sermon. No sermon on this remarkable, memorable, quotable text. It’s just kind of weird.

One could argue that there’s simply nothing more that needs to be said. You stand up. You read it. You say, “This is the Word of the Lord,” and you sit down. It more than speaks for itself. But I have preached Psalm 23 plenty of times. I have preached on “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” and “for God so loved the world” and “by grace you have been saved” and “faith without works is dead.” That gaggle of “hall of fame, say no more” verses. I bet I’ve preached them all. Not this one! “Take my yoke upon me and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for our soul.”

It can’t be that Davis just avoids tough scripture passages. Most of us don’t save Matthew 11:28-30 in our Bible memory file in a folder that says “difficult text.” Like that difficult passage in Matthew about the Canaanite woman who comes to Jesus seeking help for her daughter. Jesus tells her, “It’s not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Or the more challenging parts of the parables in Matthew 25 when the bridegroom tells the late-to-the-party bridesmaids that he doesn’t know them. Or the servant who buried the one talent because he was afraid is called worthless by his master — who then orders that the servant be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Or the Son of Man sending the goats at his left hand into eternal punishment because they didn’t care for him when he was hungry and thirsty and a stranger and naked and sick and in prison. This promise of Jesus etched in our soul doesn’t seem to fall into the “scripture parts to avoid” pile. And by the way, last week I preached the sacrifice of Isaac and the week before that it was Hagar and Ishmael being sent to the wilderness to die. So I don’t avoid tough passages, yet no sermon from me on “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Just too difficult? No. Nothing more need be said? No. It’s that when you read the rest of Matthew, when you read the rest of the gospel, Jesus never make it all sound so easy. The Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount doesn’t make the life of discipleship seem all that light. You remember, don’t you? “…[U]nless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees you will never enter the kingdom of heaven… if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you… you cannot serve God and mammon… enter through the narrow gate… for the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life and there are few who find it.” And of course, after the Sermon on the Mount and more than once in Matthew, Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

To use the language of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the extraordinary promise of Jesus about rest, rest for the soul, and an easy yoke and a light burden, it just seems contrary to, it bumps up against, it’s not consistent, it doesn’t resonate with the “cost of discipleship.” The cost Jesus so vividly describes throughout Matthew’s gospel. Bonhoeffer himself put it this way:

To be called to a life of extraordinary quality, to live up to it, and yet to be unconscious of it is indeed a narrow way. To confess and testify to the truth as it is in Jesus, and at the same time to love the enemies of that truth, his enemies and ours, and to love them with the infinite love of Jesus Christ, is indeed a narrow way. To believe the promise of Jesus that his followers shall possess the earth, and at the same time to face our enemies unarmed and defenseless, preferring to incur injustice rather than to do wrong ourselves, is indeed a narrow way. To see the weakness and wrong in others, and at the same time refrain from judging them; to deliver the gospel message without casting pearls before swine is indeed a narrow way. The way is unutterably hard, and at every moment we are in danger of straying from it. If we regard this way as one we follow in obedience to an external command, if we are afraid of ourselves all the time, it is indeed an impossible way. But if we behold Jesus Christ going on before step by step, we shall not go astray.

That’s Bonhoeffer in his book The Cost of Discipleship.

Beholding Christ going on before. Believing the life of discipleship is not some kind of external command. But a life that is lived out with Christ who is within, Christ who is beside, Christ who goes on before. Beholding Jesus Christ going on before step by step. Or to use Jesus’ own image: being yoked. Yoking. The life of discipleship and being yoked to Christ himself.

I remember going to the church summer picnic as a young solo pastor. The picnic planners had decided to play some of those good, old-fashioned picnic games. So there were some relay races with teams that intentionally avoided families being together so that folks could get to know new people. Races like passing the apple from neck to neck, two people holding a balloon between them without using their hands and running down the way. As I watched people in unexpectedly intimate contact trying to win a race with balloons and apples in awkward places, I wondered why no one in seminary told me that good, old-fashioned picnic games might not be appropriate for a church function.

And of course, there was the three-legged sack race. Two young people frantically hop-scotched and promptly fell in a fit of laughter. Another couple tried to run fast but the sack quickly fell away like a beach towel that drops from someone running toward the ocean. But then, there were the two older folks. The two women up in their 70’s. Friends since before WWII. Their technique was slow and steady. With one arm they clung to each other, hanging on for dear life, and with the other hand they each held up the sack. And they didn’t run. They walked, with long, determined strides. Laughter, joy, love, it just dripped off them as they went. Step by step by step. With that embrace, they were kind of… yoked. They won going away.

It wouldn’t be until later in my ministry in that congregation that I understood that their lifelong relationship, and others in that congregation, had some of the same characteristics. Supporting one another when their husbands were in the war, raising their children, burying their parents, struggling when money was tight, losing a child, growing old, becoming widows, praying for one another, worshiping together, 50, 60, 70 years. Long determined strides, hanging on for dear life, helping one another when the stumbles came, step by step, beholding Christ Jesus, going on before.

Yoked to each other, yes. Even more, yoked to Christ.

Jesus never said that this life of discipleship would be easy. There is a cost. The rest, the rest for the soul, comes with his presence. The promise of ease and lightness is in Christ with us, Christ for us. Long determined strides in the life of faith and hanging on to him for dear life. Allowing his grace to sooth you, his peace to fill you, his strength to lift you, his love to wash over you. Rest. Rest for your soul. Step by step by step. Your steps and his. His steps are your steps. Your steps are his steps. Yoked for the life of discipleship. Yoked in the life of faith. Beholding Christ going on before. Yoked for service as his followers. Yoked to work for the kingdom of God.

The weariness comes from being tossed around in the world’s mixer of greed and selfishness and spite when you know full well Jesus’ path is one of putting others first and watching out for the most vulnerable and loving even those whom no one loves. The burden comes from believing deep in your heart his concern for the poor, his teaching that there are no longer strangers, his own bold embrace of those so, so different from him, and then finding yourself almost helplessly pulled down the world’s path of injustice, and hatred, and condescension.

The weariness comes when you understand yourself called by Christ to a life of forgiveness, and giving from what you have, and helping to make this world a better place, that his kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven, and yet finding yourself pretty much smothered by a culture defined by meanness, and winning at all cost, and respect tossed out the window. The burden comes as you and I are measured by how much we have, and how great we look and how better we are and how together we have it all. That burden, that weight is shoved on us until we pretty much believe it too, forgetting that his grace is sufficient, that his peace passes all understanding, and that while we were yet sinners, he died for us. The weariness comes from praying constantly for those who are sick and the grieving and the dying, seeing all too often the relentlessness of death and clinging to that resurrection hope that proclaims with his steps Christ stomps on the grave and leads to eternal life.

There are those times when every one of us is tired. And there are those long nights when the heart is heavy. But this weariness, these heavy burdens? The weariness and heavy burdens that Jesus is talking about? That’s the weariness that comes from doing his work. Doing the Lord’s work. It’s the cost of discipleship.

And Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and 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 light.”

© 2017 Nassau Presbyterian Church
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