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Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 5, 2020
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Some time ago, in the pre-Coronavirus era, I was off island for a clergy meeting. I needed a haircut, and instead of going to my regular barber here in town I went to one of those fancy men’s salons in Mill Creek. I had some extra birthday money in my pocket, so I decided to splurge and get the head and neck massage too. The stylist expertly pressed her thumbs into my scalp and behind my ears and then deeply into my neck and my shoulders. Before long I was utterly relaxed. It was amazing! She was untying muscles that had been all knotted up. I was almost in a trance it felt so good. I was putty in her hands, almost literally. (For the sake of my marriage, I don’t get my hair cut there anymore!) When she was done with the massage, I half-jokingly told her, “You just changed my life!” She looked at me and said, “People tend to carry stress in their neck and shoulders.”
The people in Jesus’ time surely had a lot of knots in their necks. They surely carried a lot of stress on their shoulders.
Under the Pharisees, God’s good law had been turned into an immense burden of nit-picky rules that had to be kept. It wasn’t enough to say, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” There were 600 additional rules governing how the Sabbath was to be properly kept. How much Sabbath rest could you actually get when you were constantly worried about keeping 600 nit-picky rules?
Under the Romans who occupied their land there were all kinds of other customs and obligations people had to follow, many of which made it very difficult to be faithful to God’s Word.
There were economic concerns. People struggled to make ends meet while paying oppressive Roman taxes.
There were the diseases of the day, leprosy being the most contagious and the most feared.
And then there was the disease of sin which infected them all, luring them away from God again and again, into idolatry, into vain pursuits, into wickedness, ultimately into despair.
It was a lot to carry on those necks, on those shoulders.
Jesus had come to deliver them from all of that. He had come to bring peace and healing and freedom and forgiveness. He had come as the Messiah long-promised by God. He had come to be their savior. It was right there in his name. Jesus means, “the one who saves.”
Sadly, many were rejecting him. That’s what the first part of our gospel reading for today is about. It captures Jesus frustration over so many people refusing to repent and receive him. If you really want to get a sense of just how frustrated Jesus is, go and read the verses the lectionary left out – if you dare!
Some, however, were receiving him. Some were putting their trust in him. And so Jesus also expressed gratitude: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, and have revealed them to infants.” Jesus meant nothing to the sophisticated and the smug and the self-righteous, but God revealed the truth about his Son to those who were like infants, those who knew how dependent they were on his grace and mercy. And those who did receive him soon found that weight they were carrying on their necks and their shoulders became light.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus said. “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.”
Do you know what a yoke is? A yoke is a wooden crossbeam or harness that is placed on the neck and shoulders of a work animal to pull a cart or a wagon. Those yokes can be heavy. They can be quite a burden to carry. But here Jesus offers a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. Jesus invites people to be yoked to him. (By the way, did you know that the pastor’s stole is a symbol of this yoke?)
Being yoked to Jesus isn’t without struggles – if you’ve been attending worship and hearing the readings of the past few weeks you know Jesus is honest about that. There are challenges. There are crosses to carry. But this yoke is easy and this burden is light because Jesus comes alongside us to carry it with us. He comes alongside us to bear that burden with us, so that it would be lighter. “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest.” Even as we take up his yoke, those knots in our necks have a chance to become untangled through the rest he gives us.
What yoke are you pulling today? What are you carrying on your neck and your shoulders? Maybe you’ve been laboring under the impression that your salvation is dependent on keeping all the rules. Maybe you’re weary of living in a society and a culture that makes it so very hard for you to be faithful to God’s Word. Perhaps you have economic challenges weighing down on you. We are all concerned about coronavirus – if not for the actual disease, then the impact it is having on our way of life. And if all that weren’t enough, there is the ever-present reality of sin in our lives, that infection that we all already have and which is the heaviest burden of all.
Today our Lord Jesus invites us to lay all these yokes down and take up his yoke. He invites all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come to him. Jesus comes to us through his Word today to give us something even better than a neck massage. He comes to give us the deeper rest only he can provide through his mercy and grace. For he is the Messiah long-promised by God. He is God’s only Son. He is the one who came to be our savior and Lord. And as Jesus himself tells us, he is a Lord who is gentle and humble in heart, who gives us rest for our souls.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church