Sermon preached by Revd. Duncan Strathie, 9 July 2017

My yoke is easy, and my burden is light

Matthew 11:16-19;25-30

16 ‘But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another,
17 “We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
   we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon”; 19 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.’
25 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; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 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.
28 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

John, who so clearly recognised who Jesus was when he baptised him, is now imprisoned and having doubts. Who can blame him? The great judgment John announced has not materialised, the corrupt are still in power, and John is languishing in gaol.

Jesus tells John’s disciples to tell him what they have heard and seen, that the blind are receiving sight, the lame are walking, the lepers have been cleansed, the deaf can hear, the dead raised to life, and the poor receiving good news (11:5). Although not the mighty judgment John envisioned, these are surely signs of God's kingdom drawing near.

After John’s disciples leave, Jesus speaks to the crowds about John the Baptist with words of high praise. No one who has ever lived is greater than John the Baptist, Jesus says (11:11). He is the fulfilment of prophecy, the Elijah sent by God to prepare the way for the Messiah (11:12-14).

He stood on the threshold of the kingdom. Yet now the kingdom is breaking in through Jesus, and even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John (11:11).

The problem with this generation, Jesus says, is that they listen neither to John nor to Jesus. John’s austere lifestyle led people to accuse him of having a demon, while Jesus’ habit of eating and drinking with sinners earned him a bad reputation (11:18-19).

This generation finds reason to take offence at both John and Jesus and in doing so, evade the call of both. They are like children in the marketplace who cannot decide whether they want to play wedding games or funeral games and end up playing neither (11:16-17).

“Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds,” Jesus says. Jesus’ own deeds as described in 11:5 give evidence that he embodies and reveals the wisdom of God, that he is “the one who is to come,” the one who ushers in God’s kingdom.

Skipping over the “woes” to unrepentant Galilean towns (11:20-24), our reading picks up again at verse 25, with Jesus’ prayer thanking his Father because he has “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants.”

Jesus liked making statements that would make people sit up and take notice and as you hear that sentence this morning, I wonder if you are considering whether you are among the wise or an infant?

The “wise and intelligent” may refer to any who reject Jesus and his message, but perhaps especially to the religious leaders, whom Jesus often rebukes for their sense of self-importance and their hypocrisy.

The scribes and Pharisees pride themselves on being learned in the law yet fail to understand the basics of justice, mercy, and faith (23:23). They repeatedly reject Jesus and conspire against him, thus conspiring against the very purposes of God.

The intellectuals had no use for Jesus, but the humble welcomed him. Perhaps it is easy to misunderstand this passage and to take offence at the words of Jesus. Let us be clear that Jesus is not condemning intellectual power, but intellectual pride.

All the learning and academic achievement in the world counts for nothing if the one who possesses them discovers that they are a barrier to finding God!

In verses 25-27 Jesus is making an extraordinary claim, that only he can reveal God to women and men! There is a kind of parallel passage in John’s gospel where Jesus says in chapter 14 “He who has seen me has seen the Father”.

If we want to see what God is like, if we want to know the mind of God, the heart of God, the nature of God and God’s attitude to creation, then we need to look at Jesus!

It is a central tenet of the Christian faith that in Jesus Christ alone we see God revealed, and it is also at the centre of our faith that we understand Jesus, through his Spirit to give that knowledge and experience to anyone who is humble enough to receive it.

In the final three verses it is as though the focus completely switches as Jesus says “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”.

Are they not words we love to hear, but perhaps struggle to make sense of? As I look out over this congregation, some of whom I know better than others, I see too many that have been widowed, a heavy burden that can make us weary.

Some may be carrying the burden of facing a major change in life, a diagnosis and difficult treatment, retirement and potential loss of purpose, the cruelty of austerity, or something that is simply a burden for you that makes you so weary.

And here we have Jesus’ simple offer, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest”. Words which are straightforward and easy to understand the meaning of, but which we struggle to really appropriate for ourselves perhaps?

Jesus was speaking to people who were desperately trying to find God and were trying to do good but were finding the tasks too burdensome and wearying.

For the Orthodox Jews of the time, religion was a thing of burdens and it was almost as though the heavier your burden, the closer to God you must be. In Mt 24 Jesus says of the Scribes and Pharisees “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others”.

The Scribes and the Pharisees had created over 500 rules and laws for God’s people to keep if they were serious about being a Jew. Religion had become something about keeping the rules and not much else.

For the Jew in the first century, they faced a continual stream of messages about what they should not do. This had become so burdensome that religion had become a barrier to God. What must it have heard like to his hearers when Jesus said to them “my burden is light”.

Is our religion something that moves us closer to God or is it a barrier, a burden that is too heavy to bear? Even some of the Rabbis saw this problem.

The story is a parable of the continuous demands made on the people of Israel who considered themselves to be Jews. These demands were indeed burdensome.

Jesus replaced these with the two commandments about loving God and loving neighbour. No less easy to do, but it feels much less burdensome and more invitational than ‘thou shalt not … ’!

Jesus invites us to take his yoke, a large wooden frame to which was attached a plough or a cart, it was the thing that connects the worker to the work that needs to be done.

In Palestine at the time, each ox had a bespoke made-to-measure yoke, hand crafted by a carpenter. Perhaps Jesus had made many. He knew what he was talking about. Jesus says to his hearers then, and to us here today in Moseley, “My yoke fits well”.

Individually shaped for you to allow you to move and grow and develop in your faith as your life journey unfolds. Because the yoke is laid on us in love and we are use it in love, love lessens its load and pulling with it is much less burdensome.

Jesus is not looking for religious people but people who will enter into a living relationship with him where love of God and love of neighbour are paramount. This is what the Christian faith is truly all about, being released into freedom to be the person God created us to be, not an automaton blindly following burdensome rules!

There is an old story of man who encountered a boy carrying a younger boy, who was lame, on his back. “That’s a heavy burden for you to carry” said the man. The boy replied, “That’s no burden, that’s my brother!”

The burden which is given in love and carried in love, is always light.

Amen.

Parables taken from Barclay, W, 1975, The Gospel of Matthew Vol 2, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia. pp 14-16.