“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places 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 was 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.”
For those of you who were here when Vern preached two Sundays ago, you’ll remember the harshness of Jesus’ words in that week’s scripture lesson from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 10: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father,…and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household…and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” He reminded us that, if we’re going to follow Jesus, there is a cost. Following Jesus isn’t easy.
It can be tough as a pastor to preach these difficult passages – Vern did a great job doing it. At first glance, that kind of passage isn’t exactly appealing. If we’re trying to gain followers, it’s tempting to soften Jesus’ harsh language – people don’t exactly flock to difficult and demanding tasks. As church leaders, we certainly don’t want to burden people, or run off any potential church members. So many preachers end up sticking to a message that doesn’t measure up to Jesus’ message.
How much easier it is to hear the following: “If you want the best in life, just follow Jesus, because he wants you to succeed – in life, in business, in your family. Jesus wants you to prosper. He wants you to have a big car and a magnificent home. Financial blessing is God’s will for you.” That’s the kind of stuff some preachers do offer.
But as we heard a couple Sundays ago, Jesus says, “Don’t think that I have come to bring peace…I haven’t come to make your lives easier, but actually to make your lives harder. If you’re going to follow me, you might have to turn your back on your family. You have to shoulder a heavy cross. It’s not going to be a bowl of cherries.” Jesus wants his disciples to know from the start that his way is a narrow way. He talks about the costs, and warns them about the demands.
In today’s passage from Matthew, chapter 11, our reading feels a little bit easier to take. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Now that feels more like it! It sounds like somewhere between Matthew chapters 10 and 11, Jesus got a sales lesson in member recruitment.
But is Jesus being consistent? One second he’s telling us that if we’re going to follow him we’re going to have to pick up a cross and carry it. The next second he’s telling us to turn to him when we’re tired and he’ll give us rest. He says that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. So which is it? Bearing a heavy cross or wearing an easy yoke?
Next month, our nation will remember the twelfth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the costliest natural disaster in American history. The following is just one of the experiences that a Southern pastor shared about providing assistance after the storm:
“When I took a group on a mission trip to flood-ravaged New Orleans I was not prepared for the devastation and destruction that I saw…We gutted a house for one family who had just purchased the house two months before Katrina, so now they’re paying a mortgage on a house they can’t live in…One family from the church who hosted us wasn’t so fortunate. It was an elderly mother and her physically and mentally handicapped son. An ambulance was supposed to come and evacuate them. It never came. When the National Guard unit went in, they determined that when the flood waters started to rise, the mother got into bed with her son and there they both died.
“One night during our time with [our host church] they [had] a fish fry for us. Folks from the church and the wider community came, and you could see it on their faces. They were wearied — from their incredible loss, from their almost unbearable grief, from nine months of trying to dig out and not seeing much in the way of results…Everybody there was visibly weary, all carrying — or maybe the best they were doing was dragging their loads — tangible, heavy loads.”
This pastor describes a scene of hopelessness and loss that’s hard for us to imagine. Yet in some ways, this scene is no different than any Sunday when we gather here in this sanctuary. While we pray that we never have the same burdens as those with destroyed homes and devastated lives, we do all limp in here every Sunday. In our own ways, we stagger in here, flooded by emotional hurts and spiritual pains.
We hobble here tired, worn out, carrying tremendous burdens — some that nobody else on earth knows about, some that we can’t even admit to ourselves we’re bearing — burdens we carry all by ourselves. And we get here and Jesus says, “Come to me. I know that you’re carrying a heavy load, the weight of your pains, the burden of your sins, the load of all your worries. Come here. I will give you a rest.” That is the good news that we preach.
But still, a question: How do we go from a heavy cross in one chapter to an easy yoke in the next?
A yoke is the large piece of wood which connects two oxen as they plow. You put each of their heads in it, and they’re yoked together. Where one goes the other goes, and they pull together. It makes the hard work more comfortable, but that’s only the case when two are yoked together. The burden only becomes light when the yoke connects one ox to another. Jesus says he’s going to give us a yoke, but because of our yoke-mate the burden becomes light.
By offering us a yoke, Jesus doesn’t invite us to a life of ease — following him will be full of risks and challenges. As a New Testament scholar once noted, when Jesus says that his yoke is easy, “This is not some sleight of hand invitation, some deceptive recruiting strategy.” The “easy” yoke of Jesus isn’t an invitation to a life of ease. It’s the call to a life of humble service. A life free from the need to prove ourselves. A life free from the need to take care of things by ourselves. The yoke of Jesus lets us unburden ourselves and rest securely in the arms of God’s grace.
I want to close with a story from a church youth group leader also working in New Orleans. He writes, “Our group was working on an elderly woman’s house, and her great-grandson desperately wanted to help. As we were carrying some heavy furniture out of a room so we could have room to work, one of the teenagers grabbed one end of a heavy dresser and this little guy, maybe six years old, grabbed the other end. He was grunting, straining, struggling, but his end of the dresser didn’t budge. I said, ‘Why don’t I help you with that? Let’s lift it together.’ I reached down and picked up that end of the dresser. And he was right beside me, his hands underneath the dresser. Even with as much grunting and straining and struggling as he was doing, if he had let go, I wouldn’t have felt the difference. But, if I had let go, he would have been crushed.”
Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest.” Then he bends down, takes on the brunt of our load, and says, “Let’s go.” Where we would be crushed going it alone, Jesus lifts our burden. Amen.