July 9, 2017, 5 Pentecost
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30; Romans 7:15-25a
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
This morning’s lesson from the Gospel according to Matthew begins in the middle of a speech. Jesus is speaking to the crowds who were following him about John the Baptist. We need to back up a little to appreciate what Jesus is saying.
At this time John the Baptist was in prison because he had dared to criticize the immoral behavior of Herod, the ruler of Judea. John had heard rumors of what Jesus was doing, so he sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the Messiah. The message Jesus sent back to John was this: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Matthew 11:4-5). In other words, Jesus’ actions were what the Hebrew Bible taught would be the actions of the Messiah. John knew this, so he could draw the appropriate conclusion about Jesus’ identity. After giving John’s disciples this message, Jesus turns to the crowds and talks to them about John, calling him a great prophet.
Jesus goes on with what I think of as his “if you’re a prophet, you can’t win with the people” speech. “For John [the Baptist] came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon”; the Son of Man [Jesus] came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” But Jesus then teaches the crowd the same message he had sent to John the Baptist: “wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” In other words, look at a person’s deeds as an indication of whether or not the person is aligned with God and God’s teaching.
This is a fairly simple truth, isn’t it? Something that “infants” – the innocent and simple – readily comprehend. This morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans points out, however, that we often do what we don’t want to do and don’t do what we do want to do. Sin interferes. By experience we all know this to be true. With regard to Jesus, though, we can safely assume that what he did and taught reflected and revealed God. He was aligned with God and sin did not interfere with his expression of God’s love. So, in his ministry we see God’s love when he heals the blind, the lame, the lepers, and the deaf, when he raises the dead, and when he brings good news of God to the poor.
We believe that Jesus is expressing the love of God when he makes this invitation: “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.”
A yoke is a wooden bar or frame that joins two animals together so they can pull a heavy load. The image is an image of hard work. How can a yoke promise rest for those who are already weary? When we are tired and discouraged, we don’t want a yoke, we don’t want to pull another heavy load.
Jesus invites us to look at life differently. Why are we weary? Aren’t some of our burdens caused by our own faults? Human beings rebel against God and turn away from God in countless ways. But God has called us to return, through the prophets, through the Law, and finally, through Jesus. Rebellion against God is not a way of peace. It isn’t ultimately easy. God knows that the best thing for us is to turn back to God. So God calls us back. Each of us knows how difficult repentance can be. But finally, when we stop rebelling against God, the way is truly easier than the way of rebellion, and the burden is lighter. Jesus invites us to experience this truth for ourselves, by yoking ourselves to him.
I am reminded of the Shaker song, “Simple Gifts” (Hymn 554). “’Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed, to turn, turn, will be our delight till by turning, turning we come round right.” This hymn celebrates how easy and light it can be to turn away from our pride and self-will and turn back to God.
Farmers yoke an inexperienced animal with an experienced animal for training. That’s what happens when we yoke ourselves to Jesus. We come to Jesus in humility, recognizing that we don’t know how to live the way God wants us to live. We need training and teaching. That’s why we read about Jesus in the Bible, why we come to church and participate in the Eucharist, why we pray. We need to put ourselves in sync with Jesus. We need to learn his way of life and walk in step with him. When we do this, we may find that it is much easier to do something we thought we couldn’t do than we feared.
Jesus invites us to work with him, his way rather than our way. Gently, with humility. As he said to his disciples when he washed their feet the night before he died, “Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor the messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:16-17).
Day by day and step by step may each of us and all of us together learn to walk with Christ, yoked to him to do the work God calls us to do, and finding rest for our souls along the way. In Jesus’ name. Amen.