This sermon was given by Rev Caroline on Sunday 9 July, and was based on Matthew 11:16-19 & 25-30
I wonder how many of us can remember doing a three legged race at school? Our teachers might have divided the class into pairs – or, less likely at my school, we got to choose our partner. If we were lucky we might have got paired up with a friend who was in tune with us. If we were unlucky, we got paired with someone scarily competitive who was going to do the race their way or no way!
The whistle blew on Sports Day. Then there were those first few steps that were always so stressful, as you tried to get into your matching stride. If you and your partner were in tune with each other and were linked at the ankles with an arm over each other’s shoulder to help balance, you would find the rhythm and then this slightly bizarre activity would reach a stage that transcended the awkwardness and could even, on a good day (with a tail wind), feel almost beautiful in its rhythm as two people worked as one.
Meanwhile, for those who liked to do things their own way, something very different was happening. Pulling against each other, often falling over they would career around the race track and usually fall out with each other eventually arriving at the finishing line with thunderous expressions and thankfulness that this pantomime was over until the next Sports Day.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us. Just like the 3-legged race might be an image that we can more easily relate to in contemporary society, a yoke was a familiar item in Jesus’ times.
A yoke is a piece of wood that hangs around the neck of animals or humans as they either carry heavy objects or plough a field. It helps them to stay in tune with each other so that they don’t pull their own way and risk ruining the job that they are doing. In the Old Testament it us a commonly used image for following Jewish customs and practices and would be relatable in a largely agricultural economy. Everyone would have known that it was a tricky piece of equipment to use.
So, when the word “yoke” was used to describe following the Law or the Torah, this would be understood as something challenging that had rewards. Just as we might remember the awkwardness of our ankles tied to someone, Jesus’ listeners would have been able to tangibly remember the training of oxen with the yoke carrying a plough through a field, or remember the feeling of the wood digging into their shoulders as they carried heavy loads. A yoke causes some discomfort and, sometimes, suffering but also achieves good things – such as a freshly ploughed field ready for sowing or meeting the household’s needs for water.
The understanding of wearing the yoke in the Old Testament was that it was an outward sign of their internal relationship with God. It was testifying to a holy life. Jesus, however, is offering a different yoke to them in this passage.
Jesus’ intimate relationship with the Father came through a personal relationship that was not learned just from books or from teaching in the synagogue – he LIVED every day in his presence, listened for his voice, watched and imitated just as an apprentice does from his master. Throughout the gospels we are shown the contrast between those who were considered wise and learned simply failing to understand whilst ordinary people who had fallen short of God’s ideals were learning the deepest truths about God by simply following Jesus, knowing him in the midst of their daily struggles and encountering God’s love through Jesus’ ministry and healing amongst them in their ordinary lives.
Just as Jesus learned from the Father, his command to learn from him is an invitation to be his disciples. This is so much more than an understanding in our heads – it is adopting a way of life in harness with Him. The one who was sent to save us. We need to relate to Jesus in all that we do and in our way of being. Jesus links that invitation into relationship with Him to relationship with the Father through him. When we surrender to being yoked to Jesus, our relationship to the Father through him becomes “light” and “easy” because it is a proper mutual relationship moving forward in harmony. To relate in any lesser way is a much tougher and jarring way of life – just like our 3 legged race competitors each doing things their own way.
The rest that Jesus promises us, though, is not like some permanent vacation that is guaranteed to us. The language of what Jesus is saying reflects back to the long uncertainty of his people who had wandered, been in exile and captivity. It may also reflect back to the uncertainty of life outside the Garden of Eden. By offering rest, Jesus is offering that deep rest that only the God of Creation could offer to his people. The rest of knowing we have come home, like the prodigal son, into the Father’s arms. As disciples we are not simply mimicking Christ, although we look to him to guide our actions and prompt out hearts, we experience the ongoing presence of our Creator by linking arms and placing our step in line with his so that we can enjoy that transcendent experience of moving forward with him in harmony.
By willingly taking the step of placing Jesus’ yoke upon our shoulders to harness us to him, we have the paradox of gaining profound freedom. He wants to release his followers from the burden of religion as they embrace a life of faith. Mercy and love is on offer to liberate from a life of obedience and anxiety.
That was the context of Jesus’ teaching then – but how is it relevant today? When I talk to people who declare that they have rejected all religion, as they put it, and unpack with them what they understand themselves to be rejecting, it is often a sense of legalism and judgemental behaviour that they expect the Christian faith to have. That may have been their experience of faith at some point in their lives. I know that it was an experience that I had had as a young person. It was that experience that I rejected when I walked away from church and faith at 16. I’m sure the good news of God who loves us was preached but I always felt judged and as if I fell short of what God required of me. It was coming to know Jesus in my late 20s that set me free. Hearing that Jesus loves me and longs to be yoked to me just as he longs to be yoked to each one of us was a converting experience. It was a revelation to me that changed my life and set me free from the distortions of faith that I had rejected years before.
POEM – by Deborah Ann
Come unto Me, My beloved,
give Me your yoke to bear
loosen from your shoulders
the burdens that on you wear.
Give unto Me, all your troubles,
nothing is too difficult for Me
take off those chains that bind
and keep you from being free.
Give unto Me, all your worries,
place them here at My feet
rid yourself of the constraints
that ties you up in defeat.
Give unto Me, your heavy load,
place it right here in My hand
work loose that which binds you
and experience My perfect plan.
Come unto Me, My beloved,
there is nothing that I can’t do
take off the yoke that keeps away
the love that I have for you!