July 5, 2020, You’ve Got to Serve Somebody, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
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Jeremiah was a prophet in Judah in the years just before Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, swept in and conquered Judah and all the surrounding nations along with it. And in those days God gave Jeremiah a strange command. He told Jeremiah to make yoke bars and straps for himself, and to fasten them on his own neck. And wearing that yoke, Jeremiah was to go to Jerusalem., and to speak to King Zedekiah, the king of Judah, and to the ambassadors of the kings of all the surrounding nations, on God’s behalf. God commanded Jeremiah to say to all of them, “I am the God who created everything by my power. I give my power to whomever I choose – and I have given all your lands into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. If you refuse to bow your neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon you will be destroyed by famine and pestilence and the sword. So don’t listen to your prophets and soothsayers and diviners, who are going to say to you, ‘Do not bow under the yoke of Babylon.” Don’t pay any attention to them, because they are lying to you. But if you bow your neck under the yoke of Babylon, I promise you, you will stay in your own land and dwell there.”
Of course, human nature being what it is, Zedekiah and the kings of Ammon and Edom and Moab and Tyre and Sidon all went ahead and listened to their own prophets and soothsayers and diviners and made a stand against Nebuchadnezzar. And of course, God being who he is, Nebuchadnezzar swept in and conquered every one of those countries, just as God had told them through Jeremiah, and they all ended up in servitude to the King of Babylon – under the yoke of Babylon, as God had told them they would be.
All through Biblical literature and Jewish teaching, a yoke was a symbol of submission to the rule of a greater power. The ancient Rabbis taught that a Jew should be free from all servitude to man, in order that he might devote himself to the service of God. In Rabbinic theology, they put it this way: “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns” (Avot 3:5). The Torah is the Hebrew Scripture that contains all the commandments and regulations of the law of Moses. So the Rabbis were saying that the man who desired to be free from submission to worldly concerns must obey and submit to all the commandments set forth by God in the law.
So, why am I talking about Jeremiah and the ancient Rabbis, anyway? The connection, of course, is the yoke that Jesus talks about in our gospel reading today, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” Jesus says, “for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” When I read about a yoke, and I think this is true of most people in the day and time in which we live, I picture a wooden bar with straps that binds two animals together, two oxen, or two horses, so that their strengths are combined, and they are able to pull heavier loads and bear heavier burdens than one animal could bear by itself. And that seems like a great sermon illustration, especially if we imagine Jesus as our yoke-fellow. Then, for sure, we can believe the words of Paul when he wrote, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And that is a true thing.
The thing is, that isn’t what Jesus is talking about here. When Jesus invited the people to take his yoke upon them, he speaking as a Jew, and the people listening being Jewish as well, it would have been clear that what he meant was a yoke of servitude, a yoke of submission. When Jesus calls us, weary, heavy-laden people that we are, he is not inviting us to be his co-workers – though he does do that in other places – but here, he is inviting us to lay down or to break off the yokes of all the other powers we are serving, and to put on his yoke. But Jesus is calling us to serve him, and him alone, as our Lord and Master and King.
We are under the dominion of so many other powers in this world, powers that use us and abuse us and often crush us under the load of their demands. We bear the yoke of our society, the yoke of obedience to the law with all its regulations, and maybe more subtly, but equally demanding, the yoke of loyalty – what we call Patriotism. We bear the yoke of our culture, the yoke of social expectations, all the demands of what we are ‘supposed’ to look like and who we are ‘supposed’ to associate with and how much we are ‘supposed’ to earn and what degrees we are ‘supposed’ to attain to and how far we are ‘supposed’ to rise in our careers. We bear the yoke of religious demands, all those things we are or are not ‘supposed’ to do or say or enjoy or wear if we are really good Christians. And very often people find themselves crushed under the yoke of human demands, too, in unhealthy marriages or other human relationships.
But Zechariah calls to us,
“Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
Crushed beneath the burden of so many powers and authorities, we hear the voice of the prophet who proclaims the coming of the one and only true power, the one and only true authority. And he comes, says the prophet, in gentleness and in peace, to bring an end to all warfare. “He shall command peace to the nations.” And goodness knows we are in need of peace between nations in this world. The very first warfare that is abolished by our gentle King is the warfare between God and a rebellious mankind. But he also abolishes the warfare inside us, within our own hearts, that exhausting struggle for power that Paul is describing in Romans: “I delight in the law of God in my inmost self,” Paul says, “but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”
Paul has grown up bearing the yoke of servitude to the law, desiring sincerely to obey to the full all the commandments and regulations of God. He has put himself under the authority of the Law, in order to please God by what he does and says. And yet he discovers at the very same time that he is staggering under yet another yoke: the yoke of his own sinful desires and inclinations. He is utterly unable to free himself from the rule of his own sin. And we can relate to that. Because of all the powers and authorities that crush us under the weight of their demands, few are as relentlessly domineering as our own sinful habits and our selfishness and appetites and fears. And so, in the reading from Romans today, Paul is crying out in the midst of this warfare that is raging within himself: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”
And the answer comes from Jesus, who calls out, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are 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.” The invitation is not for us to do his work – not here – here the invitation is for us to make Jesus the only – the only – Lord and Master and King – of our hearts, of our minds, of our lives. Because it is only under the yoke of Jesus that we find our true freedom.
St. Augustine prayed: “Eternal God, who are the light of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, and the strength of the wills that serve you; grant us so to know you that we may truly love you, and so to love you that we may fully serve you, whom to serve is perfect freedom, in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And the collect for Peace in Morning Prayer says: “O God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom…”
There is no other power and authority under which we find freedom rather than oppression, peace rather than conflict, and joy rather than weariness. Only under the yoke of Jesus Christ, who is the God of love, do we find the abundant life we were created for – because we are beings created by Love, in Love and for Love. His yoke is easy, because his burden is only love. “Owe no one anything,” Paul writes, “except to love one another, for love fulfills the whole law.” And Jesus tells us, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” And John writes, “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.” His yoke is love, and under that yoke we find rest for our souls, and perfect freedom.
But taking on the yoke of Christ means, of course, casting off every other yoke, denying every other authority, refusing allegiance to every other power – which is why Christians have been seen as a threat to a lot of worldly rulers and authorities, who really don’t like competition. Christians have bumped heads or worse with the powers that be, time and time again over the centuries. The apostles found themselves thrown into prison many times for preaching about Jesus. But their respectful reply to the authorities was this: We must obey God, rather than men.”
In 2017, some of Christ’s followers were arrested for gathering to read verses on God’s love for the poor in the Capitol Building as Congress voted on an economic bill that favored the rich. Last year some Christians, along with non-Christians, defied authorities by bringing food and water to asylum seekers who were risking their lives in search of a safe place to live. Those were controversial choices to make, and not every Christian would have approved those actions – but those people were acting in the freedom of their faith, to the best of their understanding. They were bearing the yoke of Christ. This weekend, as we celebrate our national Day of Independence, and as we give thanks for living in a nation whose founders declared freedom to be a basic human right, it is a perfect time for each of us to evaluate our own lives, our own choices, and our own allegiances. Whose yoke do you bear? If you are weary, if you feel yourself heavy-laden in this confusing and dangerous season of the world, know that the voice of Jesus Christ invites you to lay down every other yoke of authority, and to take on his yoke alone. And you will find rest for your souls.