Matthew 11:28-30 & 16:24
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 5, 2020
Lots of us are tired – wearied from a pandemic that’s lasted a third of a year now and looks to linger a long while yet, and wearied from still having to fight for the end of racism, an evil that should’ve been buried in its grave centuries ago.
When Jesus invited folks to come to Him for rest, He Himself must have felt weary and heavily burdened. He’d just learned that His staunchest supporter, John the Baptist, had started to have his doubts about Him. He’d endured second-guessing and criticism from every side. He’d suffered even rejection from those for whom He had done the most miracles. Yet, though bone-weary Himself, He put Himself out to offer rest to the exhausted. He told them, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” In hearing that invitation, we are tempted to jump to the conclusion Jesus meant to take off every load – when, in fact, He meant to add another. In one breath, He both promised us rest and told us to take His yoke upon us.
In Jesus’ day a yoke was a hefty, long piece of wood with loops underneath, into which oxen would insert their necks and by which they’d pull many heavy things.
Jesus, it would seem, believed that rest came, not from no work, but from the right work – not from carrying no load, but from carrying the right load. So what is it about His yoke that it “easy” and “light”? Why would it bring “rest”?
First, His yoke is one that’s been custom-designed for each of us in particular. It fits us and it fulfills us.
The wrong yoke can disable a big strong ox. It can create pressure sores, like a sharp rock in a shoe, and cause bleeding and tissue damage.
The yoke Jesus has fashioned for each of us individually doesn’t hurt us, but rather enables us to put our God-given strengths to good use and thereby to satisfy our deep desire to make a positive difference. The yoke of Jesus doesn’t break us down, but builds us up and helps us become our best! Thus, in carrying the load Jesus places on us, we find peace.
During the bus boycott to end public transit segregation in Montgomery, Alabama, a Black maid who worked on the far opposite side of town carried her load by walking to and from her job, no matter how bad the weather. One hot and humid summer day, a pastor in an air-conditioned car spotted her trudging down the road with weary steps. He pulled over, rolled down his window and called over, “Sister, can I give you a ride?” She waved him off with a smile and said, “Thanks, Pastor, but save that seat for someone who needs it more. My feet are sure sore, but my soul is at rest at last.” The weight of Jesus’ yoke made her spirits light!
Jesus’ yoke brings us rest because it was shaped for us out of love. It also brings us rest because it brings us into collaboration and companionship with Jesus. By bearing the same yoke together, we form a potent and close-knit team, even when we’re just learning to accept the heavy things we have to move.
It was common in Jesus’ day to train a young, inexperienced ox by making it a “yoke mate” of a veteran and stronger ox, from whom it could learn how to do the job effectively without harming itself.
When we partner with Jesus under His yoke, we find Him a teacher who is, as He put it, “gentle and humble”, who is patient and persistent, wise and helpful. He pushes us to develop our potential; but, when we come to the end of ourselves, He takes over and does all the hard work. With kindness He shows us how to be His kind of person and do His kind of work.
In today’s first lesson from Matthew, Jesus told would-be disciples to take His yoke upon them. In the 2nd one, He told them to “take up their cross”. It turns out that those two actions amount to the same thing.
To take up our cross is to die to our pre-Christ life of self-management and independence. It is to let the “lead ox” with whom we are yoked set our course, and to learn from Him by following His example. It is to deny ourselves the pleasure of what we feel like in deference to His decisions. It is to lay to rest our illusion of self-sufficiency and surrender to His Lordship. Thus, taking up the yoke of Jesus and taking up our cross are two ways of talking about one and the same thing.
This one thing, however, is not accomplished in one instant. Our choice to carry the right load is only fulfilled by renewing and instilling that choice, again and again, in a life-long process.
Fred Craddock says it’s like having a thousand dollar bill given to you by God. We might think we could slap it on the table before Him, and say, “Here’s my life, Lord. It’s all yours.” But that’s not how it works. We have to take that big bill to the bank, exchange it for quarters, and then spend it by putting out 25 cents here and 50 cents there – by, for example, interrupting our schedule to listen to a friend talk about their troubles, following up on our commitments to our team, helping a homeless man with shaky hands drink a cup of cold water.
Our becoming the cross-bearing “yoke mates” of Jesus is achieved over the course of a lot of little acts of love, a quarter or two at a time. It is a long, steady effort of trust and obedience, and it takes a lifetime to bring it into completion. But that’s the right load to carry, and the only one that will bring deepest and longest-lasting rest to our souls!