The Light Yoke: Matthew 11:25-12:8
Good morning, church. Please go with me to Matthew, chapter 11, and we’re going to read just the last paragraph.
It’s good to be with you this morning. I’m going to admit something to you: I was a little worried having so much time off of my normal duties would be reorienting. Like when I was teaching, and I got summers and winters off, and coming back from those breaks was kind of brutal. You go from vacation to twelve hour days. From time to time I hear people talk about teaching like, “Yeah, I wish I got ten weeks off work every year.” They don’t understand. Those breaks aren’t for those kids. The breaks are because of the kids.
But, honestly, getting a break from preaching and teaching, it was needed, I’m glad I did it but I’m also really glad to be back. This is exactly where I want to be this morning and exactly what I want to be doing.
We’ve been in a series through the book of Matthew for several months now. We’ve been taking our time and going slowly through it, so slowly in fact that this morning we’re moving backwards. I told Phil I was going to do this. The passage this morning is one that’s been very much on my mind honestly for a number of years now. This particular passage has, for me, been freeing and life-giving over and over again throughout most of my adult life. I hope these truths can do the same for you.
Go with me, Matthew 11:25. [Matthew 11:25-12:8] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.
This is a passage that everything in my upbringing taught me to disregard. I say that—some of its my personality. I’m a bit intense. But some of it, too, was the church culture I grew up in. Regardless, though, of what kept piling things on, the burden of Christianity was never light for me growing up. That’s something I had to learn later, something I’m still learning.
Passages like the one’s we’ve already preached through about the cost of discipleship—that I could relate to. The cost was tangible. Discipleship as I understood it had cost me friends, and several movies I wanted to watch, and a LOT of time. So much time, and sleep. Discipleship definitely cost me sleep. And, looking back, my religious practice at the time cost me a good deal of enjoyment, and caused a lot of unnecessary stress. But I always knew that if I just put my head down and my hand to the plow, eventually, all of the costs would pay off in dividends of joy. Everyone knows that childhood is a time for hard work and determination, and in adulthood you can enjoy the fruit of your early labors.
Full stop. That’s not a light burden. In any way. I remember wondering at one point, edging dangerously close to doubt for me, when I might experience the joy people always talked about in Christianity. I figured I probably was just messing it up, and if I tried harder at keeping the faith then I might be able to be joyful in it. But looking back, it was all the “trying harder” that was making me miserable in my faith.
I was talking with my friend Ben this past week—Ben Case, many of y’all know him. I was calling to talk about a book with him that he had recommended to me called The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. The title comes from some of the last words of a Christian philosopher named Dallas Willard. He and Richard Foster really were the thought leaders in the Christian discipline movement of the nineties. Near the end of Willard’s life, his pastor asked him what he should do to really live life the way God intended in the modern era, and that’s what Willard said: ruthlessly eliminate hurry.
The book is all about this light burden of Christ, and how spiritual discipline fits into that. It was a good book—a mild recommend. I was joking with a coworker, if you read one book on spiritual disciplines, read the Divine Conspiracy. But if you’re going to read two books, read Foster’s Celebration of Disciple. BUT, if you’re going to read three books…
Mine and Ben’s conversation was a bit ironic, in that he recommended this book about not making your life too busy, and it took me a year and paternity leave from two jobs to clear my plate enough actually to read it—which, paternity leave feeling like time off should probably tell me something about my lifestyle. When I called Ben to talk to him about it, we were both doing so many things we gave up on actually having a conversation and resorted to voice texting back in forth, so I’ll probably need to read that book again.
But Ben told me, once Dallas Willard was asked to describe Jesus’s demeanor in a single word, and he thought about it for a while, then said: relaxed. GK Chesterton says pretty much the same thing in his book Orthodoxy. He uses the word mirth. And they’re both right, on so many levels. When you look at Jesus’ life, all through Matthew, he moves so slowly, and takes so much joy, seemingly, in everything he does. He’s always joking and laughing. Even in this passage—saying “light burden” is like saying “a small ton of bricks.” It doesn’t entirely make sense, but it is funny. Nothing with Jesus seems obligatory; everything is intentional, and everything is life-giving.
Jesus is so willing to disappoint people’s expectations of him, too, which I think is tied to this. He doesn’t disappoint them in the sense of being flaky or irresponsible, but—I think the word is free. He’s just free of the weight expectation can bring. Do you remember when his mom and brothers show up basically as an intervention? They come to take Jesus home, and in front of everyone, he tells them that his disciples are his family, too. It’s not rebellion—he’s not Jack Kerouac—it’s an intentional disappointment, a resorting of priorities. He meant to be right where he was, doing exactly what he was doing.
What about the passage we just read a few weeks ago, where a ruler of the synagogue comes to get Jesus to heal his daughter, and on the way Jesus stops and has a whole conversation with some stranger he’s already healed. I mean, the stakes couldn’t be higher—the little girl actually dies in the time it takes Jesus to get there—but Jesus was completely unhurried. Meanwhile I’m paying half-attention to my own family members trying to answer texts and emails sometimes. I know they say they’re important and have little red alerts on the phone, but. Rarely are they actually, if I’m honest.
This Jesus is the one we’re meant to be following. Here’s a contrariness at the core of a lived Christian life: the call to discipleship is unmistakably a call to come and die; it’s also, at the same time in some mysterious way, a call to lay down our heavy burdens, and rest. My life in pursuit of Christ bears this out. I know both the cost and the call to rest to be true.
I find that I have an incredible capacity for claiming to be following Jesus while my life looks nothing like his. I, who know literally nothing about the future and am bound by time to the current moment, find myself filled with anxiety for the future, trying to anticipate it. Jesus, on the contrary, left eternity to enter a specific moment in time. I, who can do nothing to add even a single hour to my day or to my life, am constantly hurrying, trying to save time. Jesus, who once made the sun stand still and created days in the first place, seems completely unaware of the time.
This joy, wonder, mirth, and timelessness that we see in Jesus—do you know who it reminds me of? My children, when they’re playing a game they especially enjoy. The freedom of Jesus—it’s not the freedom of a man who rejects his responsibilities, but the freedom of a child who fully believes that his Father will handle it. “We have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” Jesus brings it up at the beginning of our passage, v25, he says, essentially, you know who really gets this? Who really understands what I’m saying here? Little kids.
It may be that we’ve forgotten more as adults and in modernity than we’ve discovered about how to live as humans on this earth. Did you know before the invention of the light bulb, and obviously before radio or TV, the average person slept eleven hours a night? So if you’ve ever said to yourself, I don’t know what I would do without a car, or a computer, Netflix, or without a smart phone—the answer apparently is sleep. You would sleep more and be better rested. I know I’m a bit of the type, but I don’t know—that doesn’t sound all that bad.
And one thing Annie pointed out to me as we’re caring for our newborn: when we’re born we only really know how to do one thing: cry out for help. But here, as adults, how many of us remember how to do that? And I’m not a luddite or a fideist, I don’t want us to reject knowledge, go back to any particular age, forget all of the progress since then, but when you have a destination in mind—like you know, the telos and purpose of human existence—it’s fair to point out that not all movement is forward progress. Forget forward and backward, left and right—church, when we move, we need to walk further down Christ’s way, further in and further up.
When Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you,” to understand that, you need to know that every rabbi had a yoke. Not literally—literal yokes were tools for doing hard labor. But a yoke was what they called the rabbi’s rule, his teaching, his way of life. Jesus is saying, in front of all of his disciples, to other religious leaders they could be following around, you want to know what separates my yoke from yours? The difference between my disciples and the pharisees’ disciples? My teaching is easy to follow. The things I’m giving them to carry? They’re light. I imagine two of the disciples clinking drinks together behind him as he’s saying this. Cheers to that.
I spent so many years of my life trying and failing to do all of the things I thought I needed to do in order to follow Christ, and I blamed myself for not doing them often or well enough to really get any joy out of them. It felt like exercise—the way I used to view exercise, which was also unhealthy. I knew things like reading my Bible, going to church, fasting, praying, Bible studies, abstaining from certain foods, certain drinks, I knew it would all pay off in the end, and I would be spiritually healthy. I just had to get through this first part where it’s all miserable, and your muscles are sore, before you really start to see results. Beat your body, make it your slave. I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength. If the burden gets too heavy, you need to depend upon Christ to help you carry it. He won’t give you more than you can handle, just have more faith.
I remember reading the Pilgrim’s Progress, and deeply relating to the main character, Christian, who starts out his journey with this enormous burden on his back. We had an illustrated version that showed the burden almost as large as he was, and he hunched over to carry it. I remember feeling like, this I’m familiar with. But in the book, when Christian starts on his journey, he gets to take it off. I didn’t feel that way, and I wondered what might be wrong.
Looking back, I had picked up a lot of things that weren’t Christianity at all, and I was carrying them with me. Things like needless prohibitions. People I had made myself responsible for, their lives and their eternal fate. But most of all, I was carrying around so many expectations. From parents, from teachers, from friends at school. My youth minister and my pastor. My mind and my heart had become really heavy.
The section we read in chapter twelve, Jesus’s one-line answer to the Pharisee’s criticism is truth enough that, if you’re like me, and you are feeling heavy burdened, I would encourage you to take with you: specifically the pastors of that day are criticizing Jesus for not following part of the law. Really, he’s not following part of the Mishna, someone else’s interpretation of the law. Someone else’s expectations of what he should be doing, and as always, Jesus is just free. “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,” he says.
This is something Jesus repeats often enough that it almost becomes a slogan for him, a reminder to all his disciples of exactly what kind of yoke they were under. “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” Mark’s account of the same incident has Jesus saying the same thing in another way, he says “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath.” I know we always imagine Jesus and the Pharisees being in arguments, but it’s passages like these that make me think, is Jesus arguing with them? Or is he loving his enemy, telling them exactly what they need to know to be filled with abundant life and joy?
This is exactly what I need to know as a pharisee, myself, hopefully one in recovery. Christ desires mercy and not sacrifice. Every ordination council I’ve ever been on I’ve asked the prospective pastor what this means, partly because I want to know every answer I can know to that question, and partly because I want them to carry the question with them into ministry. Jesus desires mercy, not sacrifice, and the sabbath was made for me; I wasn’t made for the sabbath.
If I can attempt to put words to the meaning of that phrase in my life and in general, I would say sacrifice is what we can give. The time, the energy, the emotion, all of it. Mercy, though—mercy is what Christ longs to give to us. He doesn’t need anything you have, but you do need him. All of these spiritual disciplines aren’t here to make you fit and shiny, for people to look at you and admire you. God made them for you, because at the end of the day, they bring us before him, and he is what we need, both in our own lives, and in our relationships with others.
I wasn’t made for fasting, or for reading my Bible. I wasn’t made for preaching or teaching or speaking in tongues, abstaining from food or from drink. All of those things were made for me by my Father who loves me regardless of what I can do for him. He didn’t adopt me as his son because he needed me. He adopted me as his son because I needed family. We need him.
I always struggle to put into words the shift that happened in my relationship with Christ. I started learning to cast off expectation, like Jesus does, and that has given me more time to just enjoy him. I do a lot of the same things I used to. The difference feels kind of like being in a play vs. actually living the things people write plays about. I was in theater all through high school. I acted out love before I ever fell in love. The difference feels like that. I still read my Bible. I still teach and study—more than ever on both of those. My practices didn’t really change. I changed. Almost the moment I stopped seeking him as a sacrifice I found his mercy for me. His burden is light. His truth sets us free.
My religion doesn’t feel like exercise anymore. It feels more like eating. My soul gets hungry, and God “is the true and unfailing source of” everything my soul really longs for. Those two weeks AJ and I showed up at church this past month on the streetcar, it had nothing to do with what anyone wanted or expected of me. I just wanted to worship the Lord at my home church. The cost of discipleship feels more like an invitation out of comfort, into adventure.
I’ve been listening to and really enjoying the latest Switchfoot album. And yes, I am aware that Switchfoot was cool like twenty years ago, but I’m telling you, the new album. It’s good. One song prays this prayer:
give me the strength to stop holding on
I’ve been holding on so long
Won’t you give me the strength to let go?
And show me the way to come home
My invitation this morning is to lay down whatever it is you’re carry, whether it’s hurry, or expectation, or anxiety about the future. Stop sacrificing long enough to receive mercy. The call of discipleship from Jesus is a call to come and die, but in that, remembering at long last, something we’ve forgotten in ages past or since we were small. Remembering the first thing you ever knew how to do: cry out for help. Lay your burden down. His is light. His truth will set us free.