Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“A Gentler Yoke”
Rev. Art Ritter
July 5, 2020
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces 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.”
Back in the early 1980’s, I used to go to movies regularly. Now, I really can’t recall the last time I visited a movie theatre. I remember the 1983 film War Games starring Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy. The movie was about a young computer whiz who, while searching for new video games to play, unknowingly hacks into a national defense program’s supercomputer which was originally programmed to predict the possible outcomes of nuclear war. After starting a game called Global Thermonuclear War, the young man discovers that he has activated a weapons control system and the computer, unable to tell the difference between simulation and reality, has attempted to start World War III. At the end of the movie, the computer and the young man and the military defense team all learn the same lesson. The deadly game cannot be won. The young computer whiz gets to deliver the moral of the film when he says, “The only way to win, is to not play.”
It is hard for us – to not play the game. We usually measure our worth by our participation; by how much time and effort and resources we have put into the project. We evaluate the success of our lives by our contributions, by how far we have climbed on the ladder of success. Our busy-ness implies our value and our worth. We want to take advantage of every opportunity, to follow every path, to pass every test, to know every secret, and to fulfill every demand. But sometimes whatever we do is simply not enough. No matter how impressive the effort we understand that whatever we do just isn’t enough.
Recently, the circumstances are different but perhaps the feeling is the same. The pandemic has changed my schedule. I am not as busy as I used to be with meetings and classes. Perhaps demand and expectations aren’t quite the same. Yet I am feeling more tired and weary. It has been hard for me to rest but not because of my busy-ness. It is more because of my worry. I worry about what I might be able to do to control the seemingly out-of-control world around me. I am not resting easy because I am looking for a way to control my own life and life situations. I want to keep healthy and I want my loved ones to be healthy. I am concerned about the future of our church as we try to deal with this extraordinary situation in methods with which I am not familiar and with technology that I never dreamed I would need to use. I am looking for solutions, trying to solve problems, examining and seeking to prepare for every possible outcome – when the dilemmas and questions and scenarios seem to change each day. I know that you are doing the same. You can’t get away from it. Colleen Foster mentioned to me this week that many of us are working from home, or working more from home. But that means we never really leave work behind. It is always in our minds, in the next room, or in the keys of the smartphone that we carry with us all of the time. It can be a load. We carry that burden with us every day. The yoke weighs heavy upon me. The yoke leaves me numb and exhausted, burdened with a heavy sense of hopelessness.
In the 11th chapter of Matthew, Jesus spoke to the Pharisees. We tend to think of Pharisees as bad people- enemies of Jesus. Yet in those days, Pharisees were highly respected many of society. They were the educated leaders, the devout followers of God, capable and conscientious, always trying to do what was right and to make the world a better place. They were a lot like us. Their biggest problem perhaps was that they had a tendency to be “over-responsible.” They wanted to be found worthy in God’s eyes and worthy according to their own standards. They tried to live up to impossibly high standards and obligations. And they insisted that everyone else do likewise. There was something about the Pharisee philosophy that demanded that they always try to do something more, to try harder, to be better, and to worry more about things. I wonder, does that sound like anyone you might know?
In a sermon on this piece of Scripture, author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “I may believe that I live by God’s grace, but I act like a Scout collecting merit badges. I have a list of things to do that is a mile long, and while there are a number of things on that list that I genuinely want to do, the majority of them are things I ought to do, that I should do, that I’d better do, or I might feel that God doesn’t love me anymore. I may believe that my life depends on God’s grace, but I act like it depends on me and how many good deeds I can perform, as if every day were a talent show, and God has nothing better to do than keep up with my score.”
It is an exhausting way to live. It may lead us to worry, to despair, and to hopelessness. To those who can hear Jesus says, “Come unto me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens. 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.” I like hearing that, don’t you? Words of encouragement. An invitation to a better place.
The yoke of Jesus is not a heavy burden. The yoke of Jesus is weight released. The yoke of Jesus is rest for the soul. Right in the middle of all of the complexities and mysteries and confusion he stands and says, “Come to me and I will give you rest. Let me dwell with you and you dwell with me.” The yoke of a contented soul doesn’t come in finding actions that prove our worth, solutions that ensure our safety, or ideas that secure the future. The burdensome yoke is the one we wear when we try to save ourselves. The yoke of Jesus reminds us that God already knows all about us and loves us anyway, unconditionally, always.
We might, especially these days, prefer a God who takes away our problems rather than helps us cope with them; who eliminates our challenges rather than equips us for them; who vanquishes our opponents rather than enable us to make peace with them. But in the yoke of Christ we get not what we want but what we need. We get a God who shows us in our pain. We get a God who comes beside us when we are lost. We get a God who bears our burdens when we are broken. That is the yoke of Christ.
There is a feeling I recall from my childhood days. Every once it a while it sweeps over me again and I can recall feeling the same way when I was seven or eight years old. That feeling came on the first warm and sunny day of spring in mid-Michigan; when the snow and ice had at least partially melted and the green grass began to appear. You could take off your winter coat and at least exchange it for a sweatshirt or spring jacket. I remember getting off the school bus and running up the long driveway to my house, running carefree, like a young colt out to pasture, running as if my feet were floating on the air. On those kind of days, the weight of the gray and cold winter was over and the promise of the play of summer was just ahead. The heavy yoke was lifted and a gentler yoke was embraced.
Jesus knew that our life would have its burdens. Taking on his yoke does not mean the burdens will disappear. But it does mean that the weight will be tender upon our shoulders because we know that it is shared. We can begin to live life not as if we carry things alone, but as if Jesus were standing with us. We can lay down self-imposed expectations and understand we can open our arms for help. We don’t have to measure ourselves only to earthly standards because we know our ultimate goodness comes from God. We lay down our burdens of the weighty yoke of the world to find the blessings God’s promises in a gentler yoke. Our load is lighter when we walk with God.