Yokes and Rest (Zechariah 7:9-10; Matthew 11:25-30)
I want to begin this morning with a little announcement. This will be the 650th sermon I have preached from this pulpit. I keep track of these things, and tell you of them from time to time, mostly because I cannot believe it. That’s more sermons than I have preached in both my other congregations combined, and all the guest preaching slots I preached when I taught in seminary. About 45 years ago, when I started my ministry, if someone had told me that I would preach 650 sermons (and counting, mind you) in one spot, I would have laughed out loud. I can remember wondering what I would say from week to week. Sometimes I still do, wondering what in the world to say that makes any sense in this world we’re in.
This Fall it will be 42 years since Maxine and I showed up at the first church we served, at the northern edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills. The church was a combination of two quite different American Baptist congregations, that had been “merged” on paper, but had a lot of hard work to do to become one in reality. If I’d known then what I have learned about churches since, I’m not sure I’d have had the courage to go. I was just 28 years old and had spent my whole life in schools, and had a newly minted PhD in Hebrew and Old Testament from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, behind Oxford and Cambridge the oldest, most prestigious university in the UK. I knew lots about Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, about a dozen other languages, and the Old Testament. What was I doing in Deadwood in a church full of gold miners? Of course, I had Maxine’s partnership, wise counsel and good work, as I always have, and that was a plus, but what I didn’t know about being the minister of a working class church would fill several libraries. The reality was that I needed a job. And they needed a minister. We learned, yoked together, over the next three years about being a church and being a minister.
As I’ve thought about it down the years, I learned a good deal about all of it from the senior deacon. Carl was in his late 70’s or early 80’s then, had worked in the mill at the mine and, like many of the mill workers, had very little hearing left. He was the very first one of whom I heard it said that it didn’t matter that much if he couldn’t hear because he didn’t listen when he could hear. I received warnings from the Executive Minister and even some in the congregation that he’d been a thorn in the side to several ministers. But, I have to say that he never was anything but a wonderful supporter of us. One of the things he told me very early on was that his favourite verse in the Bible had become Philippians 4:4, and he said it often – sometimes to the point that I wished he’d had another favourite: “Rejoice in the Lord alway, again I say rejoice,” I quote it from the King James, because that’s the way he always said it. I can still hear it.
I came to learn a couple of things. First, that he and his wife had not had a life that would lead many people to rejoice, but rather to be bitter. He’d lost family members to tragedy, including a child and grandchild. His job had been taken away from him before retirement, and on it went. Second, rejoicing for him wasn’t just about hand-clapping, but about a deep sense of thankfulness and positivity in the face of some pretty awful circumstance. At first I thought that this had to be kind of denial and phoney, but I learned that it wasn’t. He faced the buffetings of life with an attitude that gave thanks and rejoiced and trusted in God with complete confidence in a good future. This good man of God has been dead for many years now, but he lives on in what he taught me, now a long time ago. And I am grateful.
I thought of him, when I saw our scripture lessons this morning, because each of them, in their way, begins with rejoicing or giving thanks in difficult situations. In the little text from the Prophet Zechariah, which we usually read on Palm Sunday, we come in at a very late date in the Old Testament period. When this text came to be God’s people had been back from exile in Babylon quite a while. The Persians had defeated the Babylonians and taken over world domination, and, at this point, were beginning to be threatened by the Greeks. The Persians were more tolerant than the Babylonians had been of differences among those people they ruled, as long as these people went along with policy. They were ruthless when they didn’t. The land of Judah, now the province of Yehud, was a shadow of its former self, the people were poor. Life wasn’t promising or likely to be any time soon. Yet the passage begins, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!” The call for rejoicing was not because of the way life in the world was, but because of the adventurous, or maybe even audacious faith that would allow God’s prophet to assert that God was sovereign over the earth and would send a gentle saviour to care for God’s own. In spite of the brutality of life under the Persian Empire, the audacious call was to rejoice. God is in charge and it will be well.
Jesus begins our Gospel passage today by giving God thanks. We sometimes have been taught that Jesus did everything just right and had a really successful ministry. Well, it’s not that way at all. In the context of this passage, he has worked as hard as he knew teaching and healing. He’d done his best, and it wasn’t good enough for religious folk especially. Even his cousin and, as it is claimed, his forerunner, John, questioned whether Jesus was the real thing because his message wasn’t a thunderbolt of judgment as his had been. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” John’s disciples asked Jesus. The people of Jesus’ day wouldn’t follow John because John was too strict, they wouldn’t follow Jesus because he was too lenient. There was nothing that could make them follow. They wouldn’t dance, they wouldn’t mourn, they wouldn’t rejoice, they wouldn’t do anything. Cities in Galilee where Jesus had done most of his ministry rejected him. And yet. Here he is, in the midst of all this, saying, “I thank (or acknowledge or praise) you Father, Lord of heaven and earth…”
We might easily conclude that both Zechariah and Jesus were not in touch with reality, they were in denial that life, as they knew it, was desperate. They would be perfectly entitled to become negative, defensive, and self-protective. I very well might have. I have taught many students to admit that the pain hurts – and not spend time in denial. And I still believe that there is a place for this, but I have also come to believe fervently that audacious rejoicing and thanking in the face of life can be even more important. We could learn that from either Zechariah or Jesus. I saw it embodied in Carl my old senior deacon all those years ago.
Jesus here gave thanks because God had revealed things not to those who claim power, authority, and knowledge, but to “infants,” which is a word that Matthew sometimes used to describe plain ordinary disciples. The point seems to be that the God Jesus claims knows him intimately and who he claims to know intimately does not wait to be found by wisdom or other kinds of seeking. This God takes the initiative to find and support people, even in the midst of the most appalling life circumstances. Knowing God is like this, makes it possible to face life with bold, daring, audacious rejoicing and thanking.
Jesus, then, issues what is called the Great Invitation. You must know how much I love these words from the number of times I use them in public worship. ”Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus promised rest for those who will come to him, and respite from those burdensome times of life. This is a similar way of saying what I’ve been saying about audacious rejoicing and giving thanks. Jesus promised rest from heavy burdens and from weariness. We need to be careful what we hear in that word “rest.” Jesus was not promising that following him will cause all of life to be great from then on. That’s sometimes what people are told, but it’s not so, as we all find out eventually. The “rest” of which Jesus is speaking is found in the midst of the kind of “unsuccessful ministry” that we pointed to in Jesus’ case, or the kind of oppressed life that we pointed to in the case of the Old Testament Lesson. If we were to read on in Matthew we would find out that what happens next is that Jesus leads disciples to feed themselves on the Sabbath and get in trouble with religious laws about all that. Further we read he healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, and was in trouble again, for both these things were “work.” The “rest” Jesus promises is the joy of eating together and the freedom of being healed by the God who is Lord of the Sabbath. Rest is not sitting around in blessed distraction, but of participating in the work of the God who finds and frees people to rejoice and be thankful, rather than being bound by a set of rules made to keep people at arm’s length and to tell us who the good ones and the bad ones are. This “rest” promised by Jesus will allow us to come at life from the positive side of trust in God and rejoicing because we know that God is in charge and things will, in the end, be for the good of all. If “rest,” defined as participating in God’s work of liberation, is the immediate goal of Jesus’ call to discipleship, and rejoicing and thanksgiving are the ultimate end of the road, then what’s the process for getting to the goal?
Jesus put this in a number of ways and we could find many more, but here, Jesus spoke about taking his yoke upon us. As I’ve said to the TEE folks and from this pulpit several times before, to take a rabbi’s yoke upon oneself was, in Jesus’ day, a way of talking about coming to live with a rabbi as your teacher. Jesus says that his yoke is “easy.” Again, as I’ve said to you before, this word describes the yoke of discipleship that Jesus designs as one that isn’t harsh, doesn’t chafe, or, to put it positively, gives a little and is well-fitting.” Jesus’ yoke is something that is not off the rack, but custom-made for us.
Further, most yokes in Jesus’ day were not designed just for one ox, but for two. Jesus is not saying, “Here take this thing and wear it, but you’ll have to figure out how it goes on and all that,” but “slip in beside me and let’s work together so you see how it goes.” In actual fact, it is in tandem with Jesus that we learn of him. Furthermore, the word “to learn” here, probably represents an Aramaic word that doesn’t just mean, “read the book, take notes, and get ready for an exam over the content.” It’s much more like “listen to my teaching, and watch what I do.” Work as I work. Perhaps instead of discipleship we should speak of apprenticeship. Apprentices actually work beside the master, watching, copying, doing what the master does. Jesus says, get beside me in this yoke and let’s do the work together.
In what spirit is that work done? Jesus says “I am gentle,” and the goal of the work with Jesus is learning to be gentle too.. According to an up to date Greek Lexicon, the basic meaning of this word is “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance: gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness.” People who are gentle care more about how others shine than how they do, about how others’ goals are met than theirs. As the little children’s song I love goes:
Take my hands, Lord Jesus, let them work for you. Make them strong and gentle, kind in all I do; Let me watch you Jesus, ‘til I’m gentle, too, Till my hands are kind hands, quick to work for you.
To be such a person is easier if we start by rejoicing and thanking God in confidence of a good future.
As gentle, Jesus calls disciples to follow him and learn from him. This allows us to accept others, and not to let our own agendas get in the way of the greater good. We can, in the end, face life with a calmness, a wellness, (the Hebrew word for which is shalom) deep within us. And we face life in a spirit of rejoicing and giving thanks. It’s taken a long time to learn this in my life, but it all started with Deacon Carl long ago. And I am grateful.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.