Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
There’s an old preacher’s story about a church youth group working on an elderly woman’s house helping to make necessary repairs. There was a child on the worksite. The great-grandson of the woman who lived in the house desperately wanted to help. The very first task was to carry some heavy furniture out of a room to make some extra space to work in. One of the teenagers grabbed one end of a heavy dresser and the child, maybe six years old, grabbed the other end. He was straining and struggling, but his end of the dresser didn’t budge. That’s when one of the adults said, “Why don’t I help you with that? Let’s lift it together.” He reached down and picked up the end of the dresser with the child. They were right beside one another, their hands underneath the dresser. Even as much the child was straining and struggling, if he had let go, the adult wouldn’t have felt the difference. But, if he had let go, the boy would have been crushed.
Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” My yoke is easy, Jesus said. Elsewhere, the word is translated as ‘good,’ and ‘kind.’ My yoke is good and kind Jesus said. Where we would be crushed going it alone, Jesus shares our burden. Thanks be to God.
Being a Christian is difficult. It demands sacrifice, everything that we have. The cross is heavy. When we join ourselves to Jesus, we put our head and shoulder to the yoke. A yoke is meant for heavy, hard work that begins just after sunrise and ends just after dusk. But we do not do this work alone. Jesus our Lord is also Jesus our partner.
Jesus is also our guide. In ancient times a “yoke” was a common way of referring to the Law of Moses. It was a metaphor used by Jewish Rabbis when accepting new pupils. Jesus was often called “Rabbi,” by characters in the Gospels, and indeed he often acts like one. When a student studied with a particular Rabbi, they were said to take that rabbi’s “yoke” upon them. (The metaphor is one of training an ox to plow by yoking him to another, experienced ox. The yoke forces the new ox to imitate the experienced ox, and so it learns how to behave in the way the farmer desires.)
We learn the path that leads to wisdom, love, and abundance while being yoked to Jesus—by following him, by trusting him enough to imitate his example and put his words into practice. “Jesus didn’t merely describe this way or path, nor did he merely point to it, nor did he reduce it to a list of rules; he actually embodied it: I am the path, he said. Love as I have loved. I have given you an example that you should follow” (Brian McClaren, Finding Our Way Again, p. 35).
This can be a tough sell in today’s America, the land of the free. Whatever the benefits a good partner and guide may offer, many of us prefer to go it alone. But the “Truth is, we always bind ourselves, however subtly, to something: people, places, habits, possessions, beliefs, ways of being in the world. What or to whom are you yoked right now?” (Jan Richardson, The Painted Prayerbook).
Jesus is the true giver of Sabbath rest. Jesus’ yoke guides us in the way of love. The yoke of Jesus is an invitation to let our lives be joined to God’s wisdom. Only with God’s transforming power to lift and carry the heavy burdens of life and to steer us in the right way to go can the culture of God be established on earth as in heaven, here, now in our midst. “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!” (ELW 742)
Jesus said, ‘To what will I compare this generation? [They are] 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.’ “Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” (Matthew 11:18 & 19)
It is remarkable to me, and maybe a little depressing, how fitting Jesus’ words are now in our own time, nearly 20 centuries later. “Jesus describes children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to each other with songs that no one understands. When they sing happy songs, no one dances. When they play dirges, no one mourns. When John the Baptist comes along and preaches an austere message of repentance, his listeners say he’s demon possessed. When Jesus comes along, eating, drinking around a common table, his listeners call him a glutton and a drunkard.” (Debi Thomas, “A Lighter Burden,” Journey with Jesus, 6/28/20.)
“In other words, we routinely miss what really matters. We don’t know when to dance, when to mourn, when to repent, when to celebrate. We claim to be wise and discerning, but we don’t recognize the divine when we encounter it. God is always too much or too little for us; too severe or too generous, too demanding, or too provocative. On our own, we have little capacity to discern what is good and right and holy and true” (Thomas).
As St. Paul famously wrote in his letter to the Christians in Rome, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:15, 19 & 21). Living by our own light, we are like a young ox constantly turning circles in the field around ourselves. Drawing ever tighter into the vortex of madness and destruction that we simply call Sin.
It was Martin Luther who reminded us in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” The wise and intelligent are people who rely upon their own abilities rather than God’s grace. They are people who rely upon yokes of their own making to shoulder life’s burdens. They have only their own power to drive them.
From the prophet Jeremiah we read, “Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it and find rest for your souls” (Jeremiah 6:16).
The way ahead is narrow. The way of Christ involves us in conflict with beloved friends, family, and neighbors. The Cross is heavy, but Christ, our partner is strong. Come to me, Jesus says, I know that you’re carrying heavy burdens. I will give you rest. Let us yoke ourselves to Jesus. His yoke is kind and good. Let Jesus take us into a future we could not have imagined and beyond what we could have hoped for. Let Jesus show you the joy and satisfaction of Sabbath rest, in which balance and justice is restored “IRL,” in real life and community. Let us all be joined to the wise, kindly yoke of Jesus, and thanks be to God.