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Monthly Archives: July 2008

Silver Wedding Anniversary Address

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1 Corinthians
13

The happy couple had just been married in the church. They
were posing outside for photographs. Happy couple with the best man. Happy
couple with bridesmaids. Happy couple with his parents. Happy couple with her
parents. With his friends. With her friends. With hangers-on and people who
didn’t fit any other category.

The photographer rushed back to the evening reception,
hoping to sell some photos there. But there was one problem. Behind the bride
and groom in every picture was the church notice board. It had a Bible verse on
it: ‘Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’

I’m sure that twenty-five years ago, Jim and Joan did know
what they were doing! Although if they didn’t, they’ve managed to bluff the
rest of us pretty well! And as we’ve heard those famous words from 1
Corinthians 13 about love, the first thing I want us to think about is that
lasting love requires forgiveness. Love ‘bears all things’, says Paul (verse
7).

The old film Love
Story
had the tag line, ‘Love means not having to say you’re sorry’. What
rubbish. Love lives and dies by whether we say sorry, and whether the injured
party says, ‘I forgive you.’

True forgiveness, however, never says, ‘I forgive you, it was nothing.’ We need to forgive
because it was something, not nothing. We forgive by absorbing pain and
suffering ourselves that we do not deserve to. Like when we forgive a debt, we
absorb a cost that is not rightly ours. Like Jesus forgiving the sins of the
world, dying a death on a Cross that he did not deserve.

In love, it is true that often we hurt those we love the
most. So forgiveness is essential. Jim and Joan will not have come to a silver
wedding without having forgiven each other a lot, and receiving that
forgiveness.

On to a second aspect of love. It has been said that the
bride has a three-part plan for her wedding day and her marriage:
aisle-altar-hymn. Yes, it’s a triple pun. I’ll alter him. But love that depends
on people changing is no love at all. Love is unconditional. Love doesn’t
attach strings. Married love is about two imperfect people coming together and
accepting one another’s frailties. If our giving of love is dependent upon our
loved one changing, then it changes love from a relationship to a performance.
Love becomes unattainable, because only perfection will do. Conditional love is
love without forgiveness. That’s why it’s no love at all.

Of course, this is not to say that we shouldn’t want to
change for the sake of the one who loves us. We should. But the motive is not
to do it in order that our spouse
will love us; we seek to change because
our spouse loves us. When we know we are loved, we want to change. Love is the
greatest motivation for transformation. It is far more effective than
condemnation.

A third and final point about Christian love. When I prepare
couples for marriage, I sometimes ask them what they think they are going to
say in their vows. Often, they reply, ‘I do.’ I then explain – to their
surprise – that only one person in our marriage service says, ‘I do’, and that’s
the father of the bride. Even he might really be saying, ‘Take her – please!’

However, the bride and groom don’t say ‘I do.’ Maybe in
other traditions, but not in ours. They say, ‘I will.’ And they say ‘I will’ for an important reason. They are
making a promise.

Sometimes, loving someone will be a case of ‘I will’ rather
than ‘I do’. It’s great when love is measured in emotions and hormones. In those
circumstances, keeping our promise of commitment is easy. But the feelings and
chemicals are not reliable barometers of love. They ebb and flow. Real love
requires a commitment that remains, whether we feel like it or not. We say, ‘I
will’ in a marriage, because sometimes it requires an act of will to love
someone. I will love you even when I do not feel like it.

Again, it’s the kind of love Jesus demonstrated. In the Garden
of Gethsemane, he asked if it were possible to be spared the cup of suffering. It
wasn’t. He went to the suffering of the Cross out of committed love to the
human race.

I’ve heard it said that it isn’t love that keeps your
marriage together, it’s marriage that keeps your love together. It’s the
commitment, the ‘I will’ approach to the relationship.

Today, Jim and Joan, we celebrate your committed love
through smooth passages and choppy seas. At the heart of it, we thank God for
the love of your Saviour and ours, whose commitment we seek to emulate, whose
unconditional love is our pattern for life and whose forgiveness is the pathway
to life.

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Frantic

There will be no new sermon posted on the blog this week or next, due to the upcoming Chelmsford Christian Festival,which begins this Saturday and runs until Sunday week. I’m dusting down an old sermon on the Parable of the Sower for this week. The following week, I won’t be preaching. There will be a big united service for the end of the festival in the morning, then in the evening we’ll be saying farewell to our superintendent minister, who is retiring. We shall miss him greatly.

In the meantime, I thought you might like to know the main programme of events for the festival. Listed below is what’s happening each night in our one thousand seater marquee in Central Park. Please pray for us – and especially for me, as I am organising the ministry of prayer and listening for those who have a spiritual need.

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Saturday, 12th:
YFriday and Electralyte – indie rock gig for young
adults

Sunday, 13th:
Paul
Jones and Fiona Hendley Jones
– concert for the Radio 2 and jazz/blues
crowds

Monday, 14th:
Godspell (Trinity Methodist Church
drama group reprises its well-received production)

Tuesday, 15th:
Local school choirs

Wednesday, 16th:
Tough Talk give their testimonies and Jahaziel, the acclaimed hip hop act,
supports

Thursday, 17th:
Steve Chalke interviews
Henry Olonga, Yazz, Jo Gambi, Cameron Stout and Anne Atkins

Friday, 18th:
‘Amplify’ youth worship event – Steve Chalke speaks and Noel Robinson leads worship

Saturday, 19th:
Steve Chalke speaks
and LCGC performs

Pioneering Ministries

Richard Hall points to a decision by Methodist Conference to set up a scheme for Pioneering Ministries in the Methodist Church. Richard has copied and pasted much of the press release. It’s been hard to find much on the conference website last night or this morning, except I did find the conference report of the Fresh Ways Working Group. This doesn’t contain the resolutions passed by conference, but doubtless forms a substantial background to the decision.

When I first saw Richard’s post yesterday evening, I posted a sceptical comment, fearing that if this was tied to our conventional doctrine of presbyteral ministry, we would end up recruiting people whose focus would be the care and nurture of existing Christians (not that that is a bad thing!), rather than those whose leadership gifts are missionary. I have to say that having read the press release again and the Fresh Ways Working Group, I am more positive. The report notes concerns in fresh expressions about sacramental presidency (not that the question is answered), plus, in paragraph 5.2.7., potential deficits in Methodism’s understanding of apostolicity. (Yes!) It also talks about leadership being shared between ‘laypeople’ (hate that word), and diaconal and presbyteral ministers. This gives scope for bringing a wide range of leadership charisms to the task. Encouragingly, it also notes:

It is thus a whole set of issues which lead Methodists to be wary of fresh expressions – they just don’t seem to fit established methods and rules. Although, as we have seen, it may well be our interpretation and understanding of what established Methodism is, rather than our theology and polity. (Paragraph 5.2.4)

That seems to strike the nail on the head. The report is strong on recovering the pragmatic missionary DNA of Methodism. Doing so could be a painful process, and in some areas take too long for the current urgent context. However, this seems clearly to be a priority: we need a return to a Wesleyan DNA that has been lost, albeit without the unhelpful Constantinian assumptions that Wesley held. That is, in an age when there was still a common national understanding of the Gospel, Wesley didn’t see the need for ordained ministry in the local situation to go beyond word, sacrament and pastoral care.

So I wonder whether we are up for the challenge?

If I have one reservation about the report, and I may be reading in too much here, I note it talks in paragraph 5.2.6 about leadership of fresh expressions being ‘entrepreneurial’. I just wonder whether that’s a helpful metaphor. It risks being consumerist. Hopefully, what they want to underline here is the importance of proactive, initiative-taking leadership.

(By the way, the Fresh Ways Working Group has a blog. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been updated since February.)

UPDATE: Further to Toby’s comment below, the report can be found on pages 13 to 18 of this document.

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Tomorrow’s Sermon: The Gospel According To Jesus

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Introduction
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.

1. Weary
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.

2. Rest
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.

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Tomorrow’s Sermon: The Gospel According To Jesus

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Introduction
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.

1. Weary
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.

2. Rest
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.

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Tomorrow’s Sermon: The Gospel According To Jesus

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Introduction
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.

1. Weary
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.

2. Rest
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.

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