Sermon for July 6th, 2014

Sermon for Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 6, 2014

St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas

Sermon Text:  Matthew 11:25-30

Sermon Theme:  “Is the Yoke on Us?”

 (Sources:  Emphasis Online Illustrations; Anderson’s Cycle A Preaching Workbook; original ideas; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Vol. 24, Part 3, Series A)

 Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

           At a petting zoo I went to once, there was a small carousel with five ponies tethered to a pole.  Round and round they would go in circles, wearing blinders to keep them from seeing far ahead, harnessed into a path that never changed.  The small children who had never ridden on a horse were delighted with the experience, but they soon tired of the little circular path.

          So the children were removed from the saddles and new children mounted up.  The ponies would go round and round, again and again, in an uneventful and unimaginative parade that went nowhere.

          Jesus observed that some people have a faith a lot like the little carousel.

          You see, in Jesus’ day, many people felt that the rabbis and Temple priests, with their overly strict demands for following the Law and the equally strict demands for animal sacrifices, made faith too hard.  Some people criticized Jesus for making faith too easy.  In one instance, Jesus said, “We played the flute and you wouldn’t dance!  We sang dirges and you wouldn’t mourn!”

          It would appear that the crowds who complained and criticized wanted a faith that was neither joyful nor sorrowful, they wanted neither repentance nor salvation, they wanted a lukewarm faith, a gray faith, a tepid and indifferent faith that made no demands and held no promise.  They wanted a faith tethered to a pole, blindered and harnessed to go nowhere.

          The religious leaders of the day made too many legal demands, and while Jesus offered freedom from the Law, He talked about bearing yokes and carrying crosses.  He demands that we take up our cross and that we bear a yoke.  But, at the same time, He promises us the yoke is easy and the burden light, and it’s a faith that does not go in circles, but moves us closer to God with every step.

          Jesus concludes our sermon text with, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

          You see, Jesus did not offer a life with no yoke at all.  The life completely unfettered is a life of emptiness and meaninglessness.  Freedom is only real within protective boundaries, and a healthy conscience is one of them.  The only kind of freedom that means anything to a kite, for example, is the freedom to fly.  The kite string is the “yoke” for the kite.  The string guides the kite so that while flying, it stays out of trees and power lines.  It helps the kite return to the earth so that it is free to fly again another day.

          So, too, the yoke Jesus offers us is not the boundary of restriction like the yoke of legalism, but a sheltering bond that lets us lead spiritually healthy lives.  Jesus’ yoke was a simple following of the laws of Moses, interpreted by Jesus according to the spirit behind them rather than to the letter of them, and His emphasis was always on justice, mercy, grace, and the love of God.

          Yokes were commonly used in Jesus’ day, so when used as picture language, they were easy to understand.  Today, most people have probably never seen a yoke, especially the younger people.  But in New Testament times, there were two kinds of yokes that were commonly used. 

          The first type was for animals. No doubt, growing up in His father’s carpenter shop, Jesus knew how important it was to have properly fitted and carefully smoothed wooden yokes for the oxen to properly work together as a team.  No doubt in the carpenter shop Jesus would have had to have sanded and filed the rough edges of each yoke, making it fit so that it would not hurt the animals.

          The other type of yoke was used for people.  It was a long pole that you balanced horizontally behind your neck.  It stretched out for a foot or two past each shoulder.  Fancier versions have a cut-out spot for your neck and are contoured to fit comfortably over your shoulders.  From the ends of the pole you could hang hooks for buckets or bags.  This type of yoke not only frees up your hands while you are carrying a heavy load, but it also makes you able to bear much more weight than you otherwise could.

          When most pastors preach this text, they tend to talk about the yoke used on oxen, and maybe that’s what Jesus actually had in mind.  But the yoke across a person’s shoulders is picture language showing that it frees your hands while carrying a heavy load on your shoulders.

          Please notice that Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you.”  He does not say, “Give me your load to carry.”  Take my yoke, not Give me your load.  This may argue for the team of oxen image, since a properly yoked team of oxen can work more easily together, and the implication is that we are yoked to Jesus.

          The poor people who followed Jesus were indeed “heavy laden.”  The religious leaders of the day (like the chief priests and Pharisees) offered them the extra burdens of strict adherence to the Law and rigid requirements of sacrifices.  The Pharisees and priests were also the intellectually elite who supposedly knew more about God and His rules than anyone else did.

          So Jesus says He brings the simple truth.  Jesus thanks the Father that He has revealed His truth, not to those who seek to know God through their own efforts or intellect, but to those who simply trust in the Lord as a baby trusts his parents. Jesus had scathing things to say about the clergy of His day, that bunch of religious intellectuals.  Their knowledge became a straightjacket rather than a tool.  The simple folk, the babes, were willing to learn and to walk by faith.

          Like the people in Jesus’ day, we labor and are heavy-burdened in many ways, from the harsh difficulties of everyday life to the heavy struggles with our faith.  We can’t change ourselves.  We do things we know we shouldn’t, and we don’t do things we know we should, and when we can’t stop the cycle, we just sit there in defeat.  We just can’t do it; we just can’t bear the weight.

          Into this reality, Jesus speaks and proclaims, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  And “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  You know, the Christian life is not about being a better person, and it never has been.  The old Latin saying expresses it well, “simul justus et peccator,” – which means, “At the same time, just and a sinner.”  We are both, and only Jesus can help us with that.

          That’s why we come here, to church, every Sunday.  We have to be reminded week after week about the ultimate truth, which is this:

          We are loved, not because of what we have done, or ever will do.  We are loved because we are a creation of God who has marked us with water and the Word in Holy Baptism, and who invites us to come with empty hands to His Table of His body and blood in, with and under the bread and wine.

          We are loved, not because we try harder or get it right this time or even because we might get it right the next time.  No, we are loved because of what Christ has already done for us.  He has died our death.  The true yoke, His, is easy.  The true burden, His, is light.  Let us rejoice in that knowledge!  Amen.

 The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.