Rev. Dr. Scott Herr
Please Read: Colossians 3:23-24; Matthew 11:28-30
An admirer asked Michelangelo how he sculpted the famous statue of David that now stands in the Accademia Gallery in Florence. Michelangelo replied that after a few simple sketches and pencil drawings, he “chipped away all that wasn’t David.” He said, “In every block of marble I see a statue as though it stood before me, shaped and perfected in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
Now that we are into the summer months, it seems a good time to reflect a bit on how to rediscover the beautiful life that God envisions for us, and to allow the Word and Spirit of God to “chip away,” as it were, all that imprisons and keeps us from experiencing the life which God desires for us to enjoy.
I’m reading a good book by Greg Cootsona entitled, Say Yes to No: Using the Power of No to Create the Best in Life, Work and Love. Greg reminds us that like Michelangelo chipping off the stone that imprisons David, God desires for us to rid ourselves of all the detritus that weighs us down. That means saying yes to the important things in life, and saying no to all of that stuff which just gets in the way…
Jesus extends to us an amazing invitation, “Come to me, all you who labor 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.” Notice, there are 2 invitations and one promise.
I. The first invitation is “Come to me…” This is the good news of the gospel. Jesus desires to love you well, and for you to receive his love and grace. He does not invite you to come to the law with a list of regulations for you to observe. He does not direct you to some new religion where you must change your ways. He does not invite you to take up some new cause. He simply says, “Come to me…” He means come to the only one who not only recognizes and understands the terrible burdens of this life, but to the only one who can give you relief from the heavy weight of life’s burdens.
Some of you may have heard what is part of a traditional communion service, the agnus dei, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world..” It was Jesus who did the work for us that we could not do for ourselves. It was Jesus who bore the sins of the world and who died so that we might live. Jonathan Edwards in his book The Nature of True Virtue, says that unless you know that you are saved by grace and not by works, unless you believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, all of your good works will really be self-serving… You will be doing everything, even noble works, in order to justify yourself. And that is a life, even of good works, that will be exhausting. You’ll burn out. It was Jesus who took upon himself our sins, and offers to us a perfect righteousness so that we might be free from the law and the judgment that comes under the law. Coming to Jesus means trusting, believing, putting your faith in him. Jesus makes this so simple in his invitation, “Come to me…”
C.S. Lewis once wrote that “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back t the right road; in that case, the one who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” Jesus’ invitation is for those of us who have known him for a long time and for those of us who have heard of him, but never truly known him. Jesus bids us, “Come to me…”
II. The second invitation is also simple. “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” This is an invitation to daily discipleship. Jesus in other places calls us to follow him. But this invitation is profoundly different. Most of us have not actually used a yoke, so it’s difficult to imagine what the yoke of Christ is. A yoke is a horizontal wooden bar that is laid across the necks of oxen when they are used to pull a plow or sometimes a cart. I saw this in Nigeria, and you can see it on Amish farms in Lancaster, PA.
In the Old Testament the yoke was a symbol of Torah. Again and again in the Hebrew Scriptures, putting on a yoke symbolized submitting to authority. The idea here is that we are invited to take the yoke of Christ and learn from him. The yoke is not one that Jesus imposes on us but one that he wears himself. The wooden bar would yoke two oxen together and make them a team. In this invitation Jesus is inviting us to receive him into our lives as a friend, as someone with strength and experience who comes alongside us to help us with the burdens of our lives.
Jesus says that his yoke is easy and his burden light. He says that he is gentle and humble in heart. These are qualities that he desires to form in us as well. Are you carrying a heavy burden? I suspect we all are carrying something that weighs on our hearts. Some of us carry the weight of guilt for something we’ve done, or the shame of being found out. Some of us carry around the burden of fear. What’s going to happen to me? Or what’s going to happen to those I love? There are financial and relationship burdens that many of us carry. Loss and grief can weigh so heavily upon us. Jesus wants us to take his yoke upon us so that he may not only share but liberate the heaviness of our hearts.
A good litmus test for your spiritual life is joy! In other Scriptures the yoke is used to talk about marriage. In one sense, Jesus is extending to us an invitation to intimacy, to be in a love relationship with him. Jesus doesn’t call us to a life of high blood pressures and anxiety overload. He doesn’t call us in discipleship to a life of performance anxiety and stress. No, the life of discipleship is a life of relationship with Jesus, sharing our daily joys and concerns with him as we would a loving spouse. That’s why most prayer language of the great teachers is romantic. Augustine said, “True, whole prayer is nothing but love.” Lady Julian of Norwich said, “The trinity is our everlasting lover.” Charles Wesley says, “Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly.”
III. Finally, with both of these invitations comes a promise. Jesus promises to give us rest, rest for our souls. There is an old Greek saying, “You will break the bow if you keep it always bent…” Summer is here! It is good to take a rest from work. The commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy is given for our physical and mental health. Many of us crave rest, a cessation from what can seem over the years like endless drudgery with the same old same old. Blaise Pascal said something in the Pensée like, “A King without entertainment is a man full of misery.” And so we have our diversions. TV. Working out. We take some time off, go on a trip, have a good meal and drink some good wine with friends, whatever... But that kind of “rest” is temporary, fleeting.
Here Jesus offers us a rest for our souls. yucais is the Greek word here, and gets at the deepest core of our being. He is claiming that he is the one who can give us that peace which passes all understanding, that sense of shalom or wholeness that we so deeply desire. Jesus is our Sabbath; he is our rest from the weight of sin and guilt, rest from the anxiety and angst about our value and purpose in life. In Christ we rest assured that we are forgiven, loved, treasured in the eyes of our heavenly Father.
Consider how this puts the work that we do in a very different light? Work, in the beginning, you’ll remember, was not part of the curse, but was part of creation. Work is a gift and meant to be a function of our discipleship and spiritual formation. Paul puts it well in our Colossians text when he writes, “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord… since you know that from the Lord you receive the inheritance as your reward…” If we really believe that we are sons and daughters of God, heirs of God’s everlasting kingdom, then we will work not merely for self-gain and accumulation of wealth, or in futility through our work try to find ultimate meaning and work, but we will offer our life work for the common good. I don’t want to minimize the hardship just paying the bills can be for some of us. The truth is, however, as we put our faith in Christ, we are liberated from the tyranny of our work because we are promised the inheritance and the true freedom of the King of Heaven.
As amazing as Michelangelo’s David may be, Vincent Van Gogh once wrote, “Christ… is more of an artist than the artists; he works in the living spirit and the living flesh; he makes human beings instead of statues.” I don’t know what you need to say no to as you begin another week, but I do strongly recommend that you say yes to the master artist Jesus who yet desires to reform and refine you. Consider the work Christ has completed for you, and remember his standing invitation and promise to you: “Come to me, all you that labor 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...”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…