July 5, 2020 Burdens and Yokes!
Romans 7:14-25, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Did you know that the large majority of the world’s 2.3 billion Christians are Western Christians? There are about 1.2 billion Catholic and 800 million Protestant Christians. And when we think of the Western world we of course think about Europe. But we also think about many countries of European colonial origin with substantial European ancestral populations in the Americas and Oceania.
The undeniable fact is that western Christians like us see Christianity as a European religion. Our ancestors in faith took a Middle Eastern religion and clothed it in a European or Western garb. What the western church did over the centuries was to turned Jesus into a European. Early works of art depicted Jesus as a European, sometimes with blue eyes and blond hair. Western values and western traits became Christian values and traits. In many instances we identify Western culture with Christian culture! Or as it is often said: Western culture IS Christian.
Instead of letting the light of the Gospel shine on western culture to identify its shortcomings and warts, we accept that our culture is Christian.
It is good to be reminded that Christianity was originally a Middle Eastern, a Jewish religion. Jesus was a Jew. The Hebrew Scriptures and the Middle East shaped the culture in which Jesus was born, raised, lived and died.
The first Christians were not European. As a matter of fact, some aspects of our culture that are generally embraced by Western Christians were originally firmly rejected by early Christendom.
Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples:
- Military power. The early Church, was skeptical about the use of military force. As a matter of fact, the early Christians, for more than 300 years, following their Lord and Savior, the Prince of Peace, refused to serve in the military. It was only after Constant the Great converted to Christianity and Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, that Christians served in his army. And from there things changed rapidly. During the time of the Crusades the military was presented as God’s army. Nowadays, western Christians are sometimes too enthusiastic about military power and some build their comfort and security on the size of the military.
- Economy and prosperity: The early church did not care much about material possessions. In the book of Acts we read about the first Christians selling possessions and sharing the proceeds with others. They expected Christ to return soon. There is however another important theological aspect: their greatest possession was their salvation in Christ. Christ was the Alpha and the Omega- the beginning and the end- the most important focus in their lives. We know that materialism is the dominant philosophy of the west. For some materialism is like a religion.
- Suffering: The early Church was very much aware that Christ suffered on their behalf. They were acutely aware that their sins caused Christ’s suffering. And if Christ had to suffer, why would they complain when they suffer? Suffering in fact produces positive outcomes like perseverance, character and hope.
For many Christians in the USA faith is linked to prosperity and happiness; a key to unlock my potential to do great things. The Gospel is for many a self-help tool! The power of positive thinking enables me to become successful and prosperous. Faith implies that God blesses me and God opens doors and opportunities for me to prosper. A prominent Christian leader says it this way: “God wants us to prosper financially, to have plenty of money, to fulfill the destiny he has laid out for us. You were born to win, you were born for greatness, you were created to be a champion in life.”
And suffering has no place in this view. So, it is conveniently and successfully ignored. Burdens and yokes are for people without faith.
How different was it at the beginning! How different was the expectations of the first hearers and the first followers of Christ!
The first hearers of the Gospel and the first followers of Christ, were people who were extremely vulnerable and marginalized. They understood how fleeting life was, they felt the heavy burden of disease, oppression by the Romans; they had a deep yearning for something better and new!
They had so little to fall back unto, they lived with a deep sense of longing -for their world was a hard and unrelenting place! And when Jesus approached them saying: “Come to me all you are weary and are carrying heavy burdens”, the could relate!
They understood (or perhaps hoped) that this man would bring about something new. They, more than their wealthy, comfortable and privileged, compatriots, were intrigued by what Jesus had to offer: a lighter burden, getting rid of my heavy yoke!
The Gospel speaks profoundly to people who know that suffering is part of being human. The Gospel speaks to those who are dealing with typical human burdens and yokes and uncertainties and anxieties. It speaks to people who feel that their lives are not what they could be. It has something to offer to those who despair. The Gospel has something to say to human beings facing their own brokenness and shortcomings.
The Gospel has a comforting word for those who are tired, hopeless, fed up with their own brokenness and struggles. Jesus has something to offer to those whose burdens and deep, painful emptiness are too heavy to carry. To them Jesus of Nazareth gives the promise of liberation from sins and hopelessness, spiritual comfort and complete renewal and restoration!
Now the Bible is clear that some people would respond to Jesus of Nazareth, they will give him their burdens and yokes and they would discover freedom, new life and purpose. Others would ignore his promises, they would reject his message and without knowing it they will continue to live with their heavy burdens and yokes.
We know that Jesus, during his time on earth, had compassion for those who suffered. He healed lepers, offered forgiveness to sinners, and welcomed the weak and vulnerable – yes even children and then actually makes them the standard for citizens of God’s Kingdom!
This was the world of Jesus when he said: “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.”
You see his invitation comes in the first instance, not to the sophisticated, the independent, the self-sustained, or powerful people, not to the wise. His invitation comes to those who are at the end of their rope, those who despair and who are weary.
The heavy burden, at the time, most likely referred to the 613 prescriptions of the Jewish Law. The only way for salvation at the time was believed to be through obedience to the Law. And we know that they could never really keep all the laws so they were always guilty. They lived with a heavy burden knowing they are never really good enough!
Jesus presents an alternative to those who are under constant stress and those who have failed: “Come to me and I will give you rest.”
Human beings as burdened beings. Today’s burdens and yokes come in many shapes and forms. They are internal and they are external. There are many burdens that enslave us.
Our world, country and communities are burdened by disease and violence; addiction and anxiety; self-centeredness and self-destructed behavior. We all feel that burden of uncertainty and insecurity that is gnawing at our soul. We are deeply concerned of the yoke of racism and intolerance.
Some people are carrying yokes and burdens of poverty, unemployment and rising healthcare costs. There are people in our country that are burdened by not knowing where they will find a next meal. There are people who are burdened by so much wealth that they measure worth only in terms of dollars and not by integrity and goodness.
There are people who carry heavy burdens of a blemished past and burdens of bad decisions and who are unable to forgive themselves. There are people who are burdened with guilt and who are unable to find joy in life! There are people who are carrying heavy burdens because they worry about their children or their health. Or the burden of seeing how a parent is suffering in body and mind! A unique burden of our time is that we cannot visit with our loved ones, the fear of dying alone or suffering. The invitation of Jesus still comes to us: “Come to me and I will give you rest.”
The Apostle Paul shows us another kind of burden. Even though he is arguing about the position of the Law, it is clear that he reaches a point where he has to admit that he is unable to fix things himself and that he stands before God empty handed: “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” The Apostle Paul, after exhausting all options, reaches a point where he accepts the fact that his burden is too heavy; his yoke too oppressive. But then he discovers the solution: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Jesus offers a way to get rid of life’s burdens and yokes! A way that is rooted in him as one who is gentle and humble in heart. The One who offers rest for our souls.
What do we have to do? We need to let go of our burdens and trust God! And this is what is really hard for people who are used to doing things our way. It is hard for people who have so much to rely on.
Faith seems to come easier to extremely poor and vulnerable people, ravaged by disease and with no support or anything to fall back unto. It seems easier for them to place their trust in God. We who have much should let go and trust God.
The NT scholar Nielsen says: “Our stressful and anxious efforts to deal with our burdens are over. Now we are able to live with joy and purposeful commitment with Christ!”
Finding rest means that we are in a new and meaningful relationship with God through Christ. And because we are in a new relationship with God our relationship to others are also changed. We will see them as Christ sees them, we will approach them as Christ approached them, with gentleness and kindness. And because our burdens and yokes have been lifted, we will do everything we possibly can to make life easier for others!
“Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest!” Amen.