On Friday, Rebekah brought home her first ever school report. I won’t read it out, but let’s just say Debbie and I were two proud parents. We decided she deserved a reward, but unlike one other couple we know at the school who headed to Toys R Us at Harlow, we more modestly headed into town and Woolworth’s.
Now if ‘Woollies’ is famous for one thing, it’s the pick and mix counter. And today’s Gospel reading is something of a pick and mix reading. We hear Jesus’ frustration with those who perversely will accept neither him nor John the Baptist. We hear his joy that the simple, not the wise receive the kingdom of God. In between, it omits some verses about judgment. Then it ends with Jesus’ famous words of invitation:
‘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.’ (Verses 28-30)
A sermon covering the whole passage wouldn’t be very coherent, in my opinion. So I thought I’d better pick but not mix. And I’m going with those closing verses I just read. They constitute, for me, The Gospel According To Jesus. If you want a flavour of the Good News as Jesus proclaimed it, you can hardly do better than meditate on these words.
As a father of young children, working morning, afternoon and evening most days, and then fitting in some domestic duties often late at night, it’s music to my ears when I read Jesus saying, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary’ (verse 28). I know a lot about weariness. When you go to bed late, you can’t catch up the next day, because the children wake you up.
Many other people know weariness. The single parent. The elderly person, whose infirmities keep her awake at night. The person with the second job, trying to make ends meet. Many people know weariness. If Jesus can offer rest to the weary, it has to be good news. What kind of weariness does he have in mind?
I believe Jesus speaks here about a weariness of spirit. Some people know all about that, too. They give, give, give only for church to suck the life out of them and give nothing back. They are running on empty. Church seems tailored to the needs of others, but not them.
I think Jesus has a specific form of spiritual weariness in mind, one that makes people feel they ‘are carrying heavy burdens’. It may be the kind of religious exhaustion I have just described. But it may be something else. Some forms of religion lay heavy burdens on people.
Jesus knew all about it in his day. The spiritual leaders took the Scriptures and twisted the laws of God. One moment they were the signs of gratitude for God’s salvation, the next moment they had become distorted into laws that either put you right with God or kept you in the right with God. Then, if that wasn’t enough, they added their own interpretations. These human traditions became yet more rules. Religion became a list of obligations. Faith was characterised by words such as ‘ought’ and ‘must’. When belief in God is only a list of ‘oughts’ and ‘musts’, a litany of obligations, then it is a lead weight, a heavy burden from which people need rest.
Heavy burden religion, wearying religion is something the Christian Church has slipped into too many times during her history. It is something we practise when we imply that people have to reach a certain standard of morality before they will be acceptable to God and to us. It is the religion I sadly grew up with in the Methodist Church. It said if you were good and believed in God, you were a Christian, but it led people to say they were trying to be Christians. Did they ever know whether they were Christians or not? Probably not, in heavy burden religion.
Jesus says this approach to faith tires people out. It doesn’t bring life, love and energy. It wearies folk. He came to abolish wearisome religion. He came to lift burdens. I wonder whether we feel that weight around our necks. If so, he has come to remove it. I wonder too whether it is a burden we have laid on others. Jesus comes to take it from them, and to challenge us to change.
What is Jesus’ promise to those carrying burdens? ‘I will give you rest’ (verse 28). I just said that he came to lift the dead weight of wearisome religion. We can see him doing that in the Gospels.
So it was that Jesus refused to lift stones to throw at the woman caught in adultery. He knew what the Jewish Law said about those who commit adultery. Yes, it did prescribe stoning. That was the letter of the law. But at this stage, all that would do was condemn the woman. Where might salvation be found? Instead of large stones, he drew in small grains of sand. And as the self-righteous accusers skulked away, he said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go and leave your life of sin.’
He invited himself to tea with Zaccheus, who promptly changed his life. None of the condemnation of the clean-living honest people had brought Zaccheus to repentance. But when Jesus welcomed himself into Zaccheus’ home, the man changed. He promised to put right his crooked ways, even exceeding the demands of the Jewish Law in making restitution to those he had cheated.
In both those stories, Jesus knows that strident denunciation of sin on its own won’t do the trick. Condemnation doesn’t bring transformation. What brings a change of lifestyle to the adulterous woman and the corrupt taxman? Grace. I believe they both felt their guilt. They probably both also felt hopeless. How could they change and be in the right with God and their communities?
But this is the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. He comes to save, not condemn. God’s unconditional, accepting love is the ‘rest’ he offers from a religion that has been reduced to a set of rules that no one fully keeps. It isn’t that he condones sin, for in his death he would accept condemnation in our place. Jesus knows what sets people free, and it’s love, not denunciation.
Some of you may be thinking, this is just the basics of the Gospel, I know all this. If so, I’m glad you do. But we can distort faith every bit as much as the people of Jesus’ time did. It doesn’t surprise me when I find people in church, often regular attendees for decades, who are hiding a dark secret in their lives. They are thinking, if anyone here gets to know about this, then no one will love me and I shall be rejected. They live, if not in fear of God, then certainly with a considerable degree of nervousness towards him. So hear the Good News again. Jesus says to you, neither do I condemn you. I am coming to your house for tea. He says, let me lift the burden from you. Find rest in my grace. You are loved.
And if we need to hear this for ourselves, we need to remember it in our dealings with those we are seeking to reach for Christ. We extend grace, rather than expecting them to jump through prescribed hoops before being acceptable. It means surprising them with the unconditional love of God, just as we did in a small way last weekend by telling our visitors to the family fun day that there was no charge for any of the activities or food. Jesus loved people into the kingdom of God and a transformed life: that’s our route, too.
3. An Easy Yoke
As many of you know, I developed a neck problem when I was eighteen. Although the osteopathic treatment I receive for it is improving things, I still do not have a strong neck. I look with some envy on those other fathers who hoist their children up onto their shoulders and carry them. That is painful for me. It is also painful when Rebekah gets over-enthusiastic with her cuddles. ‘Mind my neck!’ I have to say – feeling wretched that I am complaining about a demonstration of her love for me.
One thing I can’t cope with, then, is heavy weights on my neck. Jesus doesn’t want that for us in spiritual terms, either. He promises that his yoke is easy: it is a light burden (verses 29-30). What does he mean?
The language of the ‘yoke’ is significant. It was a metaphor for the Jewish Law. Jews took on the yoke of the Law. But, as I said, the approach to it had become corrupted to the point that it was a heavy yoke. It was painful on the neck, so to speak. You can see the need for relief! Obeying all the Old Testament laws, plus the added traditions of the ages, all as either a means of either finding acceptance by God or remaining in the household of faith – what a burden!
What, then, is the yoke of Jesus, and how is it easier? If the yoke was the Jewish Law, then the yoke of Jesus must be his teaching. He is claiming that his teaching is the authoritative interpretation of God’s will. But how is that easy? Often Jesus seems to increase the demands, compared with those required by the religious authorities of his day. Just read the Sermon on the Mount: how easy is that to put into practice? So how can the yoke of Jesus be easy and light?
I believe the yoke of Jesus is light in this respect: obedience to Jesus is never something we do in order to earn God’s favour. Nor do we ever undertake it so that we remain accepted by God. Obedience to the law of Jesus is something we do out of gratitude. We obey Jesus, because we are accepted, not in order to be so or remain so. The light yoke of Jesus is when we rejoice that we are loved, and it is our heart’s desire to please him. It’s why the Apostle Paul wrote, ‘Find out what pleases the Lord.’ It’s why Martin Luther said, ‘Love God and sin boldly’ – because if you know God’s love, you won’t want to sin, you’ll want to please God.
A friend of mine once told me that the thing that had boosted her self-esteem more than anything else in life was when her then boyfriend had proposed to her. The thought that this man wanted to spend the rest of his life with her was the most astonishing revelation of love to her, especially when she was deeply conscious of her own flaws and frailties. Her response was to reciprocate the lifelong commitment.
That is what the easy yoke of Jesus is like. Looking at our weaknesses and sins, he would have every right to condemn us. But he doesn’t. He gives us the ‘rest’ of holy grace and love. In response, we want to love him back. Because – unlike certain brands of shampoo – he’s worth it.