REST FOR YOUR SOULS
A sermon preached at Lyonsville Congregational United Church of Christ on July 6, 2014 (Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)
“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,
17‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.’
18For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19the 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.”
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; 26yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27All 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. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
– Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Our gospel lesson for this morning reveals what may have been some frustration for Jesus and the early church community – frustration that more people didn’t perceive what was happening, and how God was at work right there in their midst. By all accounts John the Baptist was a spectacle to behold – a fiery prophet who lived an austere life in the wilderness. He seems to have been entertaining – the gospel stories say that people made the trip out into the wilderness to see him, and some were baptized by him. But for many he was pure entertainment – they did not make significant changes to their lives in spite of his warnings that a day of judgment was about to come. Maybe he was a bit “too much.” Too radical. Too demanding.
On the other hand, when Jesus came on the scene, offering healing and reconciliation and community, he was criticized as well – for hanging out with the wrong people, for not being “religious” enough.
I imagine there are folks today who think, “If only I had been alive in Jesus’ time and been able to witness the things he did, perhaps I would be better able to believe.” But maybe that isn’t the case. Many people who saw and heard and touched and tasted back then didn’t “get it.” What God was doing wasn’t what was expected. It wasn’t convenient. It was too hard or too easy. Would it be any different today?
And maybe this story just makes clear the reality that, as much as they might say they would like a better life, most people aren’t willing to overcome the inertia and make the changes that would actually bring them a better life. They especially don’t want God messing around with their lives, calling them to admit and face their foolishness and rebellion, and facing the truth that they really don’t have their lives all together and can’t do it all by themselves. There are always excuses.
Yet, there are signs that life is not what it should be – what it could be. And here, Jesus identifies one of those signs. How many of you feel as if your soul is “rested?” Do you wake up each morning, ready to meet the day and the joys and opportunities it will bring? Do you feel like you are working on something that matters? Or are you tired and frustrated and grumpy?
Certainly the bodies and minds of many people in our society are not well rested — they don’t get as much sleep as they need. A 2012 estimate by the Center for Disease Control found that more than 40 million American workers – almost a third of the work force — get less than six hours of sleep per night. That raises serious concerns about reduced productivity and more errors on the job, but also the possibility of driving accidents, and acts of anger and violence caused by high stress and fatigue. Lack of rest is a serious health issue.
Over the years I have joked that I have been concerned about this health issue, and my preaching ministry is specifically intended to help people catch up on their sleep during our worship services! Maybe we should just invite folks to bring their pajamas and blankets to church.
But as unhealthy as physical fatigue is, soul weariness may be even worse. Soul fatigue can be caused by feeling unloved, unappreciated, unimportant. Dealing with other people – especially caring for others – can quickly wear us out. Unresolved conflict and anger can weary us.
When we are just physically worn out, a good night’s sleep, a day off, a week of vacation can restore us. Spending time with family and friends can bring joy. But when we are soul-weary, that usually isn’t enough. So folks try all kinds of ways to get some relief – often unhelpful and unhealthy ways: trying to ignore the feelings by constant distractions with entertainment, avoiding time alone, trying to medicate with drugs.
The popular singer and song writer Jackson Browne once sang:
Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels
I don’t know how to tell you just how crazy this life feels
I look around for the friends I used to turn to to pull me through
Looking into their eyes, I see they’re running too.
Running on empty…
(from the song “Running on Empty”, recorded by Jackson Browne on the 1977 album of the same name released by Asylum Records)
Jesus offers rest – the real rest that only a vital relationship with God can provide. It is God who feeds us, and restores our souls. As the psalmist says,
“The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” (Psalm 145:15-16)
I think it is fascinating that in this saying of Jesus, he offers us rest by taking up his yoke. Now a yoke is a device that farmers and wagon drivers would put on animals – like oxen – in order for them to do work: pulling a wagon or plow or some other load. A yoke came to be associated with doing work – often hard work. It has even been a symbol of slavery. One would think that the best way to cure ourselves of weariness is to take off any yokes we might be bearing – like commitments or responsibility. Many folks have fantasies of getting away from it all.
But surprisingly enough, that is not the case. It doesn’t really work. And the biblical writers and the Jewish people have the wisdom to understand this. In Jewish tradition the covenant with God — that they live out through observing the commandments given to Moses and recorded in the Torah – is sometimes described as a yoke. This includes the commandment to observe the Sabbath by taking a day of rest each week. It is a commandment that might be seen as an inconvenience and impinging on our freedom. But it is a yoke that is taken on willingly by many because it actually brings us freedom – the freedom that comes from setting limits on how much of our lives we can spend in providing for our bodily and material needs in order to take time to satisfy our soul needs.
To be yoked to materialism, self-sufficiency, and cynicism is soul-wearying. Following Christ is a yoke that restores our souls, because Christ offers us shalom: health, and wholeness, and peace.
The other thing to notice about a yoke is that it ties two animals together. That suggests that when we yoke ourselves with Christ, we no longer work alone. If we are carrying heavy burdens, we no longer have to carry them ourselves.
This spiritual yoke is taken on when we commit our lives to Christ’s leading. It is nurtured in prayer and worship and mission.
As the old hymn says,
“Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer!
Do your friends despise, forsake you? Take it to the Lord in prayer!
In his arms he’ll take and shield you; you will find a solace there.”
(v. 3 of the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Words by Joseph Scriven (1855); Music by Charles C. Converse (1868).
At his table, Jesus invites us, “Come unto me… Find rest for your souls.”
Robert J. von Trebra