TEXTS: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 and Romans 7:15-25a
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? It sounds great. These are comforting words. They’re meant to be comforting, to be soothing—and they work! At least, they seem to work pretty well as long as nothing really heavy is burdening you, or grinding you down. They tell us: “If you come to Jesus—if you believe in him, if you take his yoke upon yourself—you’ll find rest. You’ll find comfort, because Jesus’ yoke is easy … Jesus’ burden is light.”
But, what if your soul feels not just weary, but on the verge of collapse? What if—even though you’re a believer, even though you have, as far as you can tell, taken Jesus’ yoke—you find yourself staggering under a crushing load?
What is Jesus’ “yoke” anyway? As perhaps you know, a yoke is a wooden crosspiece that is fastened over the necks of two animals and attached to the plow or cart that they are pulling. But it means something else, too. Those of you who’ve watched some of those NOOMA videos Rob Bell put out some years ago may have heard this before.
In one of those videos (called “Dust”) Rob Bell explains that a rabbi’s “yoke” was his teaching. Actually, more than just his teaching. If you were a disciple of a rabbi, taking on your rabbi’s “yoke” meant living as the rabbi lived—and doing what the rabbi did.
Bear this is mind: you didn’t just volunteer for that gig. The rabbi had to invite you. He had to call you. And if the rabbi does call you, it means he thinks you’ve got what it takes. It means he thinks you actually can “take on his yoke.” It means he thinks you’re capable of doing what he does. It means he believes in you.
But suppose it’s rabbi Jesus who’s calling you. What does that mean, exactly? What’s involved in “taking Jesus’ yoke upon yourself?”
Some people say it means living in obedience to God as Jesus did, and that you’ll find rest and comfort if you’ll just do that. I think that’s the truth, ultimately … But there’s a catch. If you actually devote yourself to following God’s instructions, you’ll very quickly find out that God is forever asking people to do things which are hard—if not practically impossible. I mean, look at the scriptures. Look at what the Bible says God has asked certain people to do:
- “Abraham, leave your home and your family. Just pick up and go. I’ll tell you where you’re going later.”
- “David, take this tiny rock and go slay that giant.”
- “Hosea, marry that woman who’s going to betray you, and redeem her with your love. Make sure everyone knows about your humiliation so they’ll see a model of my love for them.”
- “Jesus, give up your glory to live among the fallen, the poor, and the lost—and then let yourself be tortured and executed.”
- “Paul, you just keep on preaching until they kill you. And when you’re whipped bloody and thrown into prison, be sure to count it all as glory.”
The call of God can be described in many ways, but … easy and light? Those don’t seem like the correct adjectives here. “Take up your cross and follow me” seems more like it.
So what is Jesus talking about, when he says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”?
I think that maybe—maybe—I’ve figured it out. The first thing we need to do is acknowledge is that some of our ideas about life are wrong-headed. Most of us want to believe that “living a good Christian life” guarantees that we will be safe, respected, comfortable, and—hopefully—prosperous. But that’s not what the Bible tells us.
No. In the scriptures, we see God calling people to follow him by living recklessly. God never guarantees our safety, or our comfort—or even our respectability. Instead, he asks us to take risks—often big ones—in order to follow where he leads. That’s not a very comforting thought, is it?
Let’s take a look at something else Jesus said a bit earlier in Matthew’s gospel. In chapter six, verse 33, he says: “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
This is part of that “lilies of the field” passage. You know: “Don’t worry about tomorrow; God will take care of what you need in order to survive.”
In other words: trust that God has you covered.
I think this means that we are called to do what God asks us to do—regardless of the cost—and trust that God will cover us.
Is your job on the line because your employer wants you to do something you know is wrong? Say no. Refuse to do it, and trust that God will cover you.
Do you know that God wants you to help someone who needs money to get her car fixed? Then give her what she needs and trust that God will cover you.
Is your church asking you to affirm something that goes against your conscience? Then speak against it. Stand up and be counted, and trust God to cover you.
First, seek God’s kingdom. Always and in all things—regardless of the cost—seek God’s kingdom first, and trust that God will cover you.
The problem is that, inevitably, there is a cost attached to this. There is suffering involved. Sometimes it may seem like God is not doing his part.
There’s not enough money to pay the bills.
Your own car breaks down.
Your church denounces you as a heretic, or a blasphemer, or a bigot.
And you begin to think that maybe you’ve just been foolish—that God is not really going to cover you; that he wants you to use good judgment and take care of yourself—not do foolish, reckless things. And you’ll find plenty of good Christian folk who are eager to tell you just exactly that.
Here, I think, is where Jesus’ “yoke” comes in. Just a couple of verses before the famous “yoke” verse, Jesus prays, saying: “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 [that is, to little children]” (Matt. 11:25).
Maybe what it comes down to is child-like trust. Maybe this is Jesus’ yoke. Even in the midst of calamity, you can trust that God is in charge, that he has a purpose for what is happening. So you trust. You don’t despair. You don’t rail against God. If you allow the Holy Spirit to work, you will even find that the fruits of the Spirit continue to grow in your life. Instead of anxiety, you’ll find joy and peace.
Of course, that’s not easy advice to follow. And even if you try to follow it, you may begin to wonder if you are crazy. It doesn’t help that people keep coming up to you with sad puppy-dog eyes to ask, “How are you doing?”
So you force a smile, and you say, “I’m fine.”
“No, really. It must be so hard. It’s OK not to hide behind a strong face all the time.”
“Um, well, I have my moments … but really, I’m doing well. I’m just trusting God, I guess.”
“Of course. Well, if you ever need to talk …” And then they pat your hand and walk away.
So you begin to wonder. You say to yourself: “I thought I was OK. But maybe I’m just kidding myself. Maybe I’m subjecting myself to some weird form of self-induced brainwashing and really I should be majorly depressed. What if it’s not really God, and I’m simply delusional?”
Or, at least, that’s what you say to yourself if you’re me.
See, I wonder if we struggle with the yoke because it is easy—because it is light. We’re like oxen used to pulling too much weight—always having to lean into it, tug and pull and strain at the exertion of carrying this heavy load.
So Jesus comes along and gives us his yoke. But it just feels wrong. It’s so easy and so light. It’s so comfortable that it makes us uncomfortable. So we’re tempted to go back to our old, heavy yokes. They’re painful, but at least they feel like they fit!
And then all of us Christians who have taken back our yokes (if we ever actually took them off to begin with—most of us don’t), we lay awake at night and worry just like everybody else. And we live just like everybody else, because we think God can’t really be asking us to go there or do that … surely he knows what an unreasonable burden it would be. That’s for saints and missionaries, not for everyday Christians like me.
This is exactly how we lose our “saltiness,” as Jesus put it. Then we wonder why Christianity is seen as fit for nothing more than to be trampled underfoot.
But listen: Jesus’ yoke is easy. Jesus’ burden is light. And that’s a good thing—because there’s no way we can go where God wants to send us if we’re still carrying our own yokes. To go there, we have to be willing to trade our worry and sorrow for his peace and joy. We have to be willing to give up our safety and respectability for his gentleness and humility. We have to be willing to trust that God will cover us—because he will.
Are we going to have that willingness all the time?
Of course not. Just like Paul said in his letter to the Romans, our decisions won’t always result in proper actions. Whenever we decide to do good, sin will be there to trip us up by making us feel guilty, or afraid, or unworthy—and fear will try to seize control of our lives. At such times, we’ll want to cry out along with Paul, saying: “I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me?”(Rom. 7:24)
Of course, there is—none other than Christ Jesus himself. The apostle assures us that Christ has “acted to set things right in this life of contradictions.” (Rom. 7:25)
And, as Paul says a little later on in that Roman letter (8:38-39), nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. When we take on Christ’s yoke, we also take on Christ’s love—and that love makes all things possible. It can lighten our burdens. It can give rest for our souls. It can even teach us how to be gentle and humble in heart … and it is the reason why the good news is good news.
So … let’s seek Christ’s yoke, and accept Christ’s love. Here’s my closing advice, friends: every day, choose to follow the rabbi who has called you, always remembering this: Jesus of Nazareth believes in you.