The God Who Carries Us Along
I remember a distinguished preacher and the former minister of Canada’s largest Baptist congregation who was one of my colleagues who used say to students, “Don’t make yourself the centre and constant example in sermons.” That’s undoubtedly a good idea, and I hope I haven’t done that too much. But sometimes, one’s own experience makes it inevitable. It may seem a small thing to some of you who have done it and survived, but this last week, on Monday, I filed the paperwork concerning my pension. I received an email response from the Retirement Board representative, saying, “You’re on your way”! All week I’ve been saying, “Yes, but to where?” I know at least one of you is going through exactly the same procedure. Maybe you’re not asking all the questions about “Will we have enough?” and all that. As I looked at the Lectionary texts for today, they didn’t speak to me at all. O, I could make out what they said, but they didn’t touch anything important to me right now. So, I sat down and studied until I discovered some texts that did. My only apology for the sermon being to and for me today, is that, if the words don’t mean something to the preacher first, it’s unlikely, they’ll mean much to you either.
For me, it all starts with the Old Testament (it always does). The Isaiah passage is really a satire on the gods and goddesses of Babylon where God’s people Judah had been sent by Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian king. The time of this satire was probably not long before Cyrus the Persian overthrew Babylon, and established an empire that would allow the people of Judah to go home. But this was yet future.
In those mighty Babylonian cities, there were parades where the statues of the gods and goddesses were carried through the streets – richly carved and ornate statues they were. They were beautiful pieces of artwork. The more in trouble the Babylonians were and the closer Cyrus the Persian came, the greater was the show in their parades. Can you imagine the hicks from the sticks of Judah watching these parades? Their God (Yahweh by name) had no image at all – wouldn’t allow it. Is it any wonder that those wonderful Babylonian deities like Bel (also known as Bel-Marduk) and Nebo (also known as Nabu, Marduk’s son) were thought to have defeated Yahweh and carried Yahweh’s people off to this distant place. Can you imagine an Israelite saying, “Look at the size of those statues, look at the jewels and the gold.” And, then, imagine further one of those hick-ish Israelites whispering to the other: “Do you see, how these statues sway and totter with every step?” “Do you see that, really, they are just heavy loads for beasts of burden to pull through the streets?” “Do you see that they can’t move on their own?” “Do you see that the workers who bear these things also totter and sway?” “If it’s true what they say that Cyrus is coming, then much good will it do these statues to be ‘gods,’ they won’t even be able to rescue the beasts of burden that carry them, let alone anything else.” And, further to the irony of all this, the picture of the procession here may be that these great statues were being removed from Babylon to keep them from Cyrus and his armies.
This small overheard satire at the beginning of Isaiah 46, sets up a contrasting word from Yahweh.
Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel (they were small, insignificant, hicks from the sticks) – those who have been carried by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am the one, even when your hair turns gray I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry your burden and I will save.
Unlike those, O so wealthy and sophisticated Babylonians, who yet had to carry their gods as a burden; Israel’s God, the God of the Bible, the God of Jesus of Nazareth, carries people along. God has been carrying people along since their birth. God is the parent who has carried them from the womb and will keep on carrying them through their old age. God describes the work with four verbs: “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry their burdens and will save.” The question is, no matter how grand the show is, in the end of the day, who carries and who is carried? The passage points us beyond Babylon, long ago and far away. In it we see two different ways of looking at God and the service of God in the world. In our world there are those who seem to have to carry their god and there are those who are carried by their God. There are those for whom the life of faith is one set or another of rules to make sure that they get every jot and tittle of doctrine “right” to support their God. There are those for whom God is always on the lookout to make sure they don’t transgress a rule. There are those for whom the life of faith is, in short, the drudgery of carrying god through the streets in a parade. Then, there are those whose God and whose life of faith carries them through fire, flood, trial, and triumph. These folk do not so much focus on making sure they and everyone else agree totally on everything, but that their lives exude such things as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In Jesus’ day there were those who had to carry their god by toting around a stack of religious rules. Some were tremendously proud of how well they did it, but the vast majority of folk were pretty beaten up by all of it, and longed for something else. They were continually told they were nothing by those in power – who kept the rules better. But, then, one day, the carpenter-prophet of Nazareth came, and, in words recorded in Matthew (and Luke, too) he encouraged these beaten up folk. In a section of the Gospel that deals with discipleship and how radical and unpopular it is to allow God to carry us rather than trying to carry god, Jesus said, in essence, “Don’t let anyone threaten you or beat up on you religiously. How much are sparrows worth? You can probably get two of them for a penny, and yet God cares for them. Look, you’re of much greater worth than sparrows, and God will carry you.” He also said: “O God I confess that you are the God who hides abundant life from those whose sole quest is to find it; but gives it freely to those whose quest is simply to let God to be God.
I must confess that I wish all this was just about the first century of our era and we could cluck our tongues at those terrible, legalistic folk and congratulate ourselves that we’re no longer like that. But, as a theological professor, I have sat through so many services and meetings and workshops that had as their goal new ways to load guilt on people and make them feel rotten and beat them up, all in the name of God. I used to talk to people who would say that they didn’t feel they’d been in church if they hadn’t been made to feel worthless and rotten and in imminent danger of being picked off by God during the week, if they didn’t do this or that. And, they were being honest; they really didn’t know what church was about unless it was about guilt and negativity and threats from on high.
In response to such spiritually beaten-up people, Jesus said:
Come to me, all you that are weary and carry 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.
Here are words for the ages. Here are words that could be crafted into a mission statement. Jesus makes his appeal to those who were weary and carrying heavy burdens. Really he was making his appeal to those who were tired of having to bear their god on their shoulders, and were beat up by the rules and regulations of treating religion as a code – and they aren’t all in the 1st century either. Jesus says, “I will give you rest.” The rest he gives is the rest of those who rest themselves in the God who carries us along.
Rabbis in Jesus’ time spoke of people taking “their yoke” upon them, by which they meant becoming their pupils. So, when Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” he is saying, “Become my disciple.” Slip out of your legalism, your fear, your state of being beaten up by those who think they’ve got all the answers, and learn from me.”
A wonderful scholar, read by only a few read any more, named T. W. Manson wrote a deeply interesting passage in his book The Teaching of Jesus in which he attempted to demonstrate that the Aramaic word that Jesus often used for his followers or disciples, was not the normal one that simply meant “learners” or “students,” but a different one that meant “apprentices.” If Manson was right, then to become Jesus’ followers means we not only learn with what we hear, but what we see in him. We not only learn by thinking, but by doing. We learn by copying his work. The yoke that Jesus offers is not the yoke that he imposes upon us, it is the yoke that he wears. As you know the yoke was made to make two oxen into a team. What Jesus is saying here is “Slip into the yoke beside me, and work in tandem with me.” “You’ll learn to pull your weight by watching me and feeling how I do it.” Jesus says “My yoke is easy.” The Greek word here is more likely to mean gentle than anything else. The yoke Jesus’ wears together with us is one that is gentle on our necks – one that fits and doesn’t chafe. As we are yoked together as apprentices with Jesus, we discover that, not only is the yoke gentle, he is gentle and humble. He doesn’t need to toot his own horn, he doesn’t need to induce guilt and lay down rules and regulations. No, wearing his yoke means not wearing a yoke alone. Jesus says this kind of burden is light because, although we are still accountable to our yoke-fellow Jesus, and our community, we do not bear it alone, but in company with God and others. If we have a message to give to our community it is for those beaten up by high-power religion, that we cannot carry God, only a phoney substitute, even if it’s encrusted with all the gold and jewels the empire can offer. If I had only one thing to say about God, it would be this, that God is the one who has borne us from the womb and will carry us to our old age and beyond. And this God invites you to slip into Jesus’ yoke and become his apprentice. God loves us.
In the 8th chapter of the Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul assured Christians, that God in Christ is bigger than right doctrine (although Paul has worked away at it in earnest in these chapters). God is bigger than rules. God is the one who cares and who carries. And we’re not being carried by a fantasy, but by God. So, Paul says that God will carry us, and nothing that happens to us (from the best case scenario to the worst) is able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
It is my prayer, that, somehow, we will make an appeal to those in our communities who are weary of heavy yokes, and are looking to slip into a yoke together with Christ to model the God who has created us, borne us, bears our burdens and rescues us, because this is the nature of God. May we work to become a place where we yoke ourselves with others in ministries of worshiping, learning, and serving our communities in the name of this one God who is Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. AMEN.