A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va.

July 6, 2014.

Matthew 11:16-30

We are now in the heart of summer, and many of us are looking forward to taking our vacations.  In the United States, the average number of vacation days per year is 13 days.  In Korea and Japan, it is 25 days.  In Germany it is 35 days.  And in Italy, it tops out at 42 days of vacation a year.[1]  Now, that’s some serious rest and relaxation!  And while 42 days of vacation might sound wonderful to us now, I hazard to guess that after five days of vacation, most of us will get restless and antsy about work, calling the office and sneaking an email here and there.  And after ten days of “vacation,” our spouses and children will be begging us to return back to work because they’ll need a vacation from us!  We in the United States live in a workaholic culture where much of our identity and significance are derived from how busy we are, and we demand high levels of productivity from ourselves and from others.  We live hectic lives.  We burn the candle from both ends.  At the end of the day, when we are spent and exhausted, we want to be like that woman in the old TV commercial who luxuriates in a bubble bath while saying, “Calgon, take me away!”  But bubble baths can only do so much.  The fact is, we are a people who are chronically weary and burdened.  And Jesus here is offering us a gracious invitation to rest.  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” 

What a wonderful invitation!  Those words are like a peaceful oasis of refreshment in the midst of the desert of our busyness and restlessness.  Now, if only Jesus could have stopped right there, I would have been totally with him, for who doesn’t need a break from work and the burdens of everyday living?  But right after offering rest, Jesus continues: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”  Now, what could Jesus have meant by that?  When we think of the word yoke, we have in mind a crossbar with two U-shaped pieces that encircle the necks of a pair of oxen working together.  A yoke is something that binds two beasts of burden together for the purpose of farm work.  It is usually a metaphor used for any burden or bondage, not for rest and relaxation.  You won’t find one picture of a yoke in a brochure for some cushy spa vacation.  If Jesus had taken lessons from Madison Avenue, He might have said, “Come to me and take my hammock.  Come to me and have an umbrella drink by the beach.  Come to me and enjoy a massage.”  But “Come to me and take up my yoke”?  Doesn’t it seem a little strange for Jesus to add an additional burden of a yoke on people who were already weary and burdened?

According to pastor Rob Bell, in Jesus’ day, different rabbis had different sets of rules, which were really different lists of what they forbade and what they permitted. A rabbi’s set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi’s interpretation of how to live the Torah, was called that rabbi’s yoke. When you followed a certain rabbi, you were following him because you believed that rabbi’s set of interpretations were the closest to what God intended through the Scriptures.  When you followed a certain rabbi, you were taking up that rabbi’s yoke.[2]  Seen in this way, a yoke is a way of life to which we submit.

So when Jesus invited people to come to him and take up his yoke and learn from him, Jesus was basically inviting these weary and burdened people to follow him as his disciples, to follow his teaching and lead a particular way of life defined and revealed by the master rabbi Jesus.  Unlike other rabbis and teachers of the law, this rabbi was gentle and humble in heart and, as a result of following and learning from him, Jesus claimed that these people would find rest for their souls. 

This “rest,” this “refreshment” that Jesus is talking about is much deeper than just “taking time out from work” or going on “vacation.”  The kind of rest that Jesus was talking about can be summed up in St. Augustine’s famous affirmation when he says to God: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you.”   As we’ve heard before, we are made with a God-shaped void in our hearts, and if we try to fill that void with anything else other than God, then our hearts will continue to be restless, constantly searching and seeking for the ultimate source of life and purpose.  Those other things could be good things like athletic achievement, career advancement, romantic love, societal status.  But if we let those things define our cosmic significance, then that would be a sin. 

According to pastor Tim Keller, “the primary way to define sin is not just the doing of bad things, but the making of good things into ultimate things.  It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship to God.”  In the movie Chariots of Fire, one of the main characters explains why he works so hard at running the hundred-yard dash at the Olympics.  He says that when each race begins, “I have ten lonely seconds to justify my existence.” [3]  According to Dr. Keller, every person must find some way to “justify one’s existence.”  Keller writes: “In more traditional cultures, the sense of worth and identity comes from fulfilling duties to family and giving service to society.  In our contemporary individualistic culture, we tend to look to our achievements, our social status, our talents, or our love relationships. . . . Everyone is building their identity on something.”[4] 

I think Dr. Keller is right—everyone is building their identity on something. And whatever that something is, that is your yoke: a particular way of life that we serve and to which we submit.  And if that yoke is not Christ, then we will face a never-ending battle in trying to justify our existence by our works rather than by the grace of God.  That’s a mighty weighty yoke to take on. And these various yokes – as good as they are – present a no-win situation, in which our identities are crushed if we do not achieve our goals, or we find ourselves dissatisfied even when our goals are achieved.  For example, many Americans make their careers their yokes – and the problem there is that if there’s some problem or failure at work, they might see themselves as failures in life. Even if people yoked to their careers find success, it might be at the expense of a lot other things that they have sacrificed in other to be a success at work: their family, their relationships and even their health.  And for people who have taken on “work success” as their yoke, when they retire, they often find that their identity or purpose in life also retired.  Others among us yoke themselves to money or status, and once again, this is a shaky foundation for our identity and security.  If we don’t attain a certain level of wealth or acclaim, we might feel like failures.  And often we’ve seen that even people who seem to “have it all” are still insecure about those who are richer, more influential or more successful.  If we have yoked ourselves to romantic love, then we might feel insignificant if we are not in a good relationship – yet we might feel equally disappointed if our beloved cannot meet all the unrealistic expectations of “happily ever after.”  Even if we yoke ourselves to religion and right living, then we risk being wracked by guilt and shame for not living up to high ethical standards, or we risk becoming proud, self-righteous and cruel to others because they do not live up to our ethical standards. 

In other words, if we live our lives trying to justify our own existence by putting on a yoke other than Christ, then we will be damned if we don’t succeed, and damned if we do succeed.  It is a no-win situation similar to what Jesus talked about in our Gospel lesson.  In some things in life, we will be criticized no matter what we do.  John the Baptist came not eating or drinking, and people accused him of having a demon.  Jesus cam eating and drinking, and people criticized him for being a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors of sinners.  In situations like these, no amount of vacation or time away will give us the rest we need, because the inner restlessness of those yokes will burden our souls wherever we go.  We won’t be able to quiet down the accusing voices of those yokes no matter how hard we try to escape. 

The question therefore, is not whether we will find rest by ridding ourselves of all yokes.  The question is which yoke we will take up, the yoke of Jesus or the yoke of something else.  The truth of the matter is, if we do not live for Jesus, we will live for something else.  We will either serve Christ, or we will serve some other master.  As Bob Dylan once sang, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”  Therefore, the question is: Will we submit ourselves to the heavy yokes of human approval, of material gain, of social status, of self-righteous pride?  Or will we find rest by submitting ourselves to the gentle yoke of Christ? 

The gentle yoke of Christ is taking on a child-like faith.  I remember when my children were young.  When I came home from work and they saw me, their eyes would light up, and they would run and jump into my arms with their heads resting on my shoulder.  In that moment, they didn’t care what anyone else thought of them.  They just knew that Daddy was home and wanted to wrap his arms around them in unconditional love.

God our Divine Parent wants to wrap arms of unconditional love around us!  Jesus’ invitation to rest this morning is to those who recognize that they are weary and burdened with the overwhelming and ultimately impossible task of saving themselves.  Come to Jesus, and take upon yourself the life that you were created to live.  And when you do that, you may find the rest that comes when our hearts have found its true home in Christ, where we are secure in the unconditional love and acceptance of God, and our identity and significance are defined by the gentle yoke of Christ.  It is an easy and gentle yoke because if and when we fail, we are offered forgiveness, grace and healing.  It is an easy and gentle yoke that rests our souls because it frees us from having to save and justify ourselves in front of others and ourselves.  It is an easy and gentle yoke because it frees us from our fears and anxieties, and it frees us to be who we were created by God to be.  Most of all, it is an easy and gentle yoke because Christ is yoked with us, leading us every step of the way, carrying most of the burden and load.

The apostle Paul asked a very important question in Galatians 1:10: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant (or slave) of Christ.”  Then later in Galatians 5:1. Paul celebrates this truth: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”  Jesus once said this to his followers: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples.  Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”[5]

On this Independence Day weekend, let us accept Jesus’ invitation to declare our independence from all the things that yoke us into slavery, and let us declare our dependence on Christ by taking up his yoke and accepting his invitation to rest in His grace and peace.  Amen.

[1] http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0922052.html.

[2] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis, pp. 47-48.

[3] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p. 162.

[4] Keller, 164.

[5] John 8:31-32.

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