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Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost – July 9, 2023

Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.

As first John the Baptist and then Jesus went out with the message that the kingdom of God had come near, that the savior, the Messiah, their rescuer and redeemer, had come, some people received this message. Some people received Jesus and followed him. But many did not. Many refused their help. They didn’t think they needed to repent. They didn’t think they needed the mercy of God. They didn’t think they needed forgiveness. They thought they were doing just fine, that they were pulling their own weight under the yoke of God’s law. They didn’t need any help from John or Jesus, thank you very much.

You can hear Jesus’ frustration with this in the first part of our gospel reading for today. John and Jesus were playing a gospel tune, and many refused to dance to it. They criticized John for not eating and drinking, and they criticized Jesus because he did! This is how it often goes. When someone’s heart is set against someone, they will always find something to criticize! When they’ve already decided they don’t like you, you can’t do anything right! Many didn’t like John or Jesus, and they refused to hear God’s voice, whether it came through either of them. They refused to hear their words of judgement and their words of mercy. They ultimately refused the redemption, the salvation, the help, they came to bring.

And so we hear Jesus lamenting this refusal to receive his help: “We played the flute and you did not dance.” In verses 18-24, which are skipped over in our lectionary reading, Jesus laments this and warns about it even more sharply. (I wonder sometimes if some of those lectionary omissions are really about helping focus the text, or if they aren’t an attempt to soften Jesus’ reputation.)

After lamenting the stubbornness of those who don’t think they need his help, Jesus goes on to offer a prayer of gratitude to God the Father for those who do receive him. He notes in his prayer that the gospel was being hidden from those who were supposedly wise and intelligent, but that it was being revealed to infants. That is, it was being revealed to those who knew their need. It was being received by those who knew how dependent they were, how much they needed his help.

And then Jesus’ public prayer turned into a public plea: “Come to me, all you that are weary and 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.”

This was a plea to stop being so stubborn. It was a plea to stop trying to carry those burdens on your own. It was a plea to receive the help he had come to bring.

This might sound silly, but as I have been pondering this text all week I’ve had a memory from my youth keep popping up in my head over and over again. When I was a teenager my sister and I were enjoying a summer visit with our dad and step-mom and two step-brothers in Spokane. We were loading up my dad’s truck for a day at the lake. We had duffle bags with towels and sunscreen and frisbees. We had bags of groceries and coolers full of drinks. I loaded up as much as I could carry. I had a couple of grocery bags in one hand and a duffle bag slung over one shoulder. Then, with one hand, I lifted the watermelon we were going to take, resting it on my shoulder. My step-mom told me I was trying to carry too much. She told me I was going to drop that watermelon. She told me to have one of my step-brothers help. But I declined. I told her I would be fine. You probably can already guess where this is going. As I walked down the steps of the back door, the weight shifted in the duffle bag I had slung over that one shoulder and I lost my grip on the watermelon. It fell the five feet from my shoulder to the ground and exploded on the concrete of their back porch.

I think the reason this is seared into my memory is the extraordinary grace that followed. Because you see, when my stepmother came out and saw what happened, she didn’t scold me, even though that’s what I deserved. She didn’t even say, “I told you so!” which would have been entirely true. I think I remember her having a knowing smirk on her face, but she didn’t say anything. She just started helping me pick up the pieces.

As a teenager, did I learn from this experience to humble myself? Did it take me down a peg or two? No. But now, as a middle-aged man, have I learned to not try to carry so much on my own? Also, no!

You see, there is a stubbornness in the human heart that makes us believe we can carry it all on our own. There is a hubris in the human heart which makes us think we can pull our own weight. Even God’s people, us who should know better, have this hubris. As St. Paul confesses in our second reading, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Even the apostle Paul himself was stuck in this stubbornness! We deceive ourselves into believing we are strong enough and smart enough and good enough, that we don’t need any help. This is bad enough in our everyday lives. It’s bad enough when you’re trying to load the truck up for a day at the lake. But it is even worse when this stubbornness makes it way into our relationship with God.

The world continues to be full of people who refuse the help God has sent. It is full of people who reject John and Jesus and the truth they bear. It is full of people who insist on doing things their own way, by their own power – and the consequences of this are all kinds of destruction and brokenness. The world continues to be full of people who are convinced that they don’t need to repent, that they don’t need God’s mercy, that they don’t need Christ’s forgiveness. It is full of people whose supposed wisdom and intelligence have blinded them to the gospel.

But this isn’t just something that happens out there in the world. This same refusal happens here in our sanctuary too. It happens when we try to carry too much. It happens when we refuse the help God has given us in his Son. It happens when we rely on our own strength and smarts and goodness instead of Christ’s grace and mercy and power.

None of us as Christians want to do this. It isn’t something we consciously choose to do. Instead, this old stubbornness creeps into our lives as we tune out the voice of God and our inner monologue takes over, telling us that we should be able to carry it all, that we don’t need any help.

I mentioned in my newsletter article this month about my pastor’s renewal program that in one of the sessions the presenter said, “You cannot do the work of ministry out of your own strength or smarts or cleverness. Whenever you try you will quickly become discouraged and grumpy and anxious and exhausted.” Those two sentences hit me right between the eyes. It showed me that sometimes I’m still trying to carry that watermelon.

What is true for me is, I’m sure, true for you too. What is true for pastors doing the work of ministry is true for all Christians as you carry out your callings in life. It is certainly true when it comes to the work of salvation itself. We cannot do it on our own. We cannot do it by our own strength or smarts. We cannot get there by our own power. When we try it just leads to anxiety and exhaustion. Ultimately, it can lead us into outright despair.

“Wretched man that I am!” St. Paul continued. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

God has sent someone to rescue us from this despair. God has sent someone to rescue us from our anxiety and exhaustion. God has sent a rescuer to save us from ourselves, to give us mercy and forgiveness and hope and peace.

The voice of this rescuer enters into our ears this morning, disrupting the lies of our inner monologue. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who are weary and 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.”

If you insist on relying on your own wisdom and intelligence, you won’t be able to receive this rescue. If you insist on relying on your own strength or smarts, you will never dance to the tune of the gospel. If you insist on carrying everything yourself, you will never know the relief and the rest that comes when you let Christ Jesus bear your yoke.

In our stubbornness we will likely continue to try to carry it all ourselves from time to time. Sometimes it isn’t until things come crashing down that we realize how foolish we have been.

But when that happens, our Lord Jesus comes to us once again with his mercy. He comes to us in the midst of the mess we have made – not to say, “I told ya!” but to help us pick up the pieces, to carry our burdens, to lighten our load.

Come to him, all you who are weary and heavy burdened – for he has come to you! Whatever sins or struggles or sorrows or stress you’re carrying today, give it all to him. Let him take that yoke, that weight, off of your shoulders. In him you will find rest for your souls.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church