(a sermon for July 17, 2016, the 9th Sunday after Pentecost; last in a series, based on Matthew 11:28-30 and Isaiah 40:28-31)
Weary. Exhausted. Worn out. Bone tired. Totally drained. Stressed to the max. Running on fumes. Overwhelmed, wiped out and on the edge of burn-out… and too pooped to pop!
Now, if there’s anyone here this morning who hasn’t felt that way at some point or another in their lives; well, you might as well sing the final hymn, because you’re good to go this morning! But… if you do know what it is to be that kind of tired, then you also know what a wonderful thing it is to finally be able to get some rest!
I remember many years ago on a warm summer day not too long after Lisa and I were married, I offered to help my father-in-law on his day off up in “the woodpile.” Now, understand this wasn’t simply a matter of setting aside some firewood for the upcoming winter; at the time, along with driving a bread truck, my father-in-law had this side business of cutting, splitting, stacking, seasoning and later, delivering cords of firewood to half the population of Mapleton, Maine! So for years Dale had to keep up with orders not only for that winter but also the one after that; and he was working on this on just about every day off he ever had! So I’m thinking it’s good for me to help; it’s a way to bond with my father-in-law; and besides, it’s a nice summer day, I can certainly use the exercise, and I’ve stacked some wood in my time; how hard can it be?
Well, suffice to say that even given the fact that I was 30 years younger in those days (!), at the end of roughly ten hours of lifting up these huge logs and putting them on the splitter, and then moving and stacking the pile of split pieces (only to find that there’s another pile of wood underneath that first pile!), I discovered muscles I didn’t even know I had; and every one of them hurt! And I was tired; in fact, what I still remember is that at the end of the day I didn’t want to move, I didn’t want to talk, I didn’t want to eat… I just wanted to go to bed and to rest! And I also remember my father-in-law laughing like crazy as he asked me if I up to going at it again tomorrow (and if I know me, I probably said, “Surrre!” which I’m sure made him laugh all the harder)! I don’t think I had ever felt quite so weary and tired as I did that night!
Of course, there are other kinds of tired. There’s being physically tired, yes, but you can also be emotionally and even spiritually tired, and it can happen in a variety of ways. There’s the kind of tired, for instance, that comes from the hurrying and rushing around most of us do day in and day out, all for the sake of trying unsuccessfully “to get things done.” There’s the kind of tired that’s the result of constant stress and worry: feeling perennially overwhelmed by what’s going on in your own life, or perhaps what’s happening in the lives of the people you love (and likewise, there’s a special kind of tired that’s reserved for all those who wholly devote themselves to the care and support of people they love, often at the expense of their own health and well-being!). And there’s the kind of tired that you feel when you’ve been out there “fighting the good fight,” whatever that fight happens to be for you, and you’ve been doing it for so long you don’t think you have any fight left in you; and maybe you really don’t want to fight at all anymore; and that in and of itself is exhausting!
It goes on and on, so many kinds of “tired” in this life; and understand, it’s not always a matter of body beating, soul sucking drudgery that finally takes its toll. Most often, being so tired is simply the result of what is in our lives; it’s the by-product of how we live! Evelyn Underhill has said this very well; she says that “we spend our lives conjugating three verbs: to have, to want and to do,” all the while neglecting the most important verb of all: to be; that is, to exist and truly live in the moment. To not be willing or able to do that; to be so caught up in everything else you’re seeking or wanting or doing in this life that you miss out on the infinite value of the moment at hand; well, that’s when tiredness truly has taken its toll. That’s when we truly need to rest.
And that’s why it is good news indeed that in Jesus, we have a Savior who says to us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
You know, I’ll be honest with you here: back a few months ago when I first started envisioning this sermon series on “a summer day with Jesus” I had kind of imagined a series of messages that were quiet and gentle; bucolic, if you will. Like I’ve said many times, summer to me is a time to step back, relax and reflect; and so I guess I was thinking that a day with Jesus would be spent sitting at his feet and listening intently to his every word and teaching: the perfect way to spend a summer day, right? But in looking at the gospels, however, what I’ve found out is that as in all of life a day with Jesus, in the summer or otherwise, was likely very, very busy! We’ve seen this all through these past several weeks: even as Jesus is preaching and teaching this incredible good news of the kingdom there’s always work to be done! There are always and ever these crowds of people who need to be healed, and fed, and taught, and given comfort; in other words, when you’re with Jesus, there’s always something to be done, it never really stops, and the thing is, tomorrow morning it’s going to be just the same! Hardly that “kind and gentle” moment with Jesus I was envisioning!
Actually, one of the things that’s interesting to me about our gospel reading this morning is that it does come in the midst of this overwhelming sense of need that both Jesus and his disciples are experiencing amongst the people. Moreover, it’s worth noting that there was also a growing opposition to what Jesus was teaching coming either directly from the Pharisees and the Scribes, or indirectly by the indifference of those in some of the Galilean cities, in particular the towns of Chorizin and Bethsaida. If you read around our text for today, you’ll actually hear Jesus is comparing these people to “children sitting in the marketplace,” taunting one another with their words and deeds. There is a great sense of fatigue that can be heard in in Jesus’ words, and we recognize it because we’ve been there; we are there, trying so hard to do what it is we’re supposed to do but running into resistance at every turn, and feeling ourselves becoming completely overwhelmed and exhausted in the effort.
But this is how Jesus responds: with words that may well be among his most comforting and healing. “Come to me… you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens.” This is our assurance that when we can no longer carry the load of life ourselves; when we realize we can’t ever make it on the basis of our own wisdom, or goodness, or strength; and even in the attempt there will always be those who will seek to place obstacles in our path, nonetheless there will always one there for us who will give us the rest we need. “Come to me… and I will give you rest,” Jesus says; but not rest in the sense of good night’s sleep or even a day off, but rather in the calm and stillness that bring peace to our restless hearts and wholly exhausted souls; the promise that in whatever comes in our lives and living we will never, ever be alone in bearing its burden. At the end of the day you see, when we are in the depths of being utterly and completely tired of it all, Jesus offers us rest from our burdens.
But then Jesus says one thing more about this; something that admittedly sounds a bit odd to our 21st century ears: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” What Jesus was referring to here was something that was used by farmers of his day (and in some instances, especially amongst the Amish, is still used today): it was a device – generally a board with two arches – used to couple two animals together (usually oxen) for the purpose of driving a plow or pulling carts; the idea being that two animals working together would be capable if even more difficult, trudging work in the fields. This, combined with the fact that for the Jewish people of Jesus’ time, a “yoke” also carried with it a connotation to the slavery of their past makes for a very strange and difficult image. Is that really what Jesus is saying? That even as bone tired and weary as you are tonight, you simply should put the yoke on and keep on working? Thanks, but no thanks, Lord… I think I’d just as soon go to bed and forget this day ever happened!
But still Jesus goes on… it’s not that kind of yoke, you see. “For I am gentle and humble in hart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Don’t you see, says Jesus, can’t you understand? It’s not that taking my yoke upon you will make for more work – for there will be plenty of that in the morning, most certainly – but it will be that the burden of the work that will need to be done will be lessened because I will be sharing the load with you!
That’s what we forget: that the value of a yoke is not so much that it doubles the work, but rather that it halves the load! Just as when two oxen, yoked together, end up with a load that is only half as heavy, likewise when we are yoke with Jesus, all the exhausting burdens of our lives end up shared with someone who truly understands how overwhelming it can be, and moreover, understands us in a way that no one else can.
Incidentally, the Greek word that is used for “easy” is crestos , which suggests something truly good… and fitting, and kind. So in other words, when Jesus says his yoke is easy, he’s saying that my yoke is fit for you; and I know it will be good. Feeling tired? Wiped out? Stressed out to the max and running on fumes? Well, why don’t you just let me make the way ahead easier. “Take my yoke upon you,” he says, because my yoke fits… it’s easier than what you’re carrying around with you now, and your burden will be so much ligher.
That’s the thing, you see, of time spent with Jesus: it does tend to lighten the load. Jesus knew, as we do, that the reality of life is that of worry, burdens and challenges, and there is an unending list of things that need to be done. Truly, to coin another verse of scripture, there is more than enough trouble sufficient for the day, and there will always be plenty left over for tomorrow! We’re going to get tired; there’s no avoiding it. But with Jesus sharing the load of our burden, we might be tired in life, but oh, we will never be tired of life. Because his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and because of that, each new day is filled with love, joy and great possibility!
I learned this week via Facebook that my niece Bethany, together with a friend of hers, climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine for the very first time. She wrote that it was “a wild and crazy adventure” filled with blood, sweat and especially tears, and said that when it was all over and the two of them had reached the bottom of the mountain once again, all she could do in her weariness and pain was to cry! But at the end of the day it was an amazing adventure she’ll always remember… and I’ll bet she’ll want to do it again.
When I read that I thought to myself that there’s a good parable for the end of a wonderful summer day with Jesus; that in truth, such a day would be so eventful, so enriching, so utterly busy that at the end of all, there would be this temptation simply to weep out of exhaustion. But I also know that even as my tears would flow, Jesus would simply say, come… come and I’ll give you rest today… but just wait till tomorrow!
And you know what? It’s OK that we wait… it’s good, in fact; for as we’ve sung today from Isaiah, “those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength… they shall mount upon wings as eagles… they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
So tonight, beloved, rest easy … rest easy in the loving and caring embrace of Jesus, who is our Savior, our teacher and our friend… and teach us to wait on him today, tomorrow and in every day that comes.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c, 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry