First Sunday of Lent, The Right Tempo
“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.”
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I am guessing that for many of us urbanites, we have never seen a real yoke. We may have an idea of what a yoke is and what it looks like from pictures or from visits to museums. A yoke was a wooden frame placed over the necks of two animals, with separate ropes around their necks. The purpose was to keep the two animals going together in the same direction. In both the Old and New Testaments, the wearing of a yoke by human beings was a symbol of slavery. The symbol of a yoke was used to describe military conquest and the enslavement of the people of the defeated nation. The prophet Jeremiah wore an ox yoke to symbolize the fact that the people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah were going to become slaves of Babylon. In our American history, the yoke could be seen in the form of slaves and prisoners bound at the wrist and ankle and even at the neck in chains. So, what is important for us to understand about yokes is that it is a reference to slavery and oppression; and slavery and oppression are heavy burdens to carry.
In this morning’s ancient testimony from the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus invites all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come to him and he will give them rest. Jesus goes on in his invitation to say, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your lives. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” So, Jesus invites us all to come to him, all of us who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, to come to him. In the reading, the nature of the burden is not specified. The word in Greek simply refers to a heavy load. It can be anything that wears a person down—sin or sickness; pain or grief; responsibility or debt; broken relationship or unresolved conflict; stress or failure; unemployment or under-employment; trouble with the law or death of a loved one—you name it. What burden wears you down?
The Sunday, February 24th, issue of the New York Times Magazine was devoted to the theme, “The Future of Work.” The one article that really caught my attention was titled, “What Makes a ‘Good Job’ Good”? The author, who received a Harvard M.B.A., wrote that it seemed like a winning lottery ticket, a gilded highway to world-changing influence, fantastic wealth, and a lifetime of deeply meaningful work. So it came as a shock, when attending his 15th reunion, he learned how many of his former classmates weren’t overjoyed by their professional lives; in fact, they were miserable. He heard about one fellow alum who had run a large hedge fund until being sued by investors (who also happened to be the fund manager’s relatives). Another person had risen to a senior role inside one of the nation’s most prestigious companies before being savagely pushed out by corporate politics. Another had learned in the maternity ward that her firm was being stolen by a conniving partner. These were some of the more extreme cases. But then there were more along the lines of lingering sense of professional disappointment—missed promotions, disaffected children and billable hours in divorce court; jobs that were unfulfilling, tedious or just plain bad. One classmate described having to invest $5 million a day—which didn’t sound terrible until he explained that if he put only $4 million to work on Monday, he had to scramble to place $6 million on Tuesday, and his co-workers were constantly undermining one another in search of the next promotion. It was insanely stressful work, done among people he didn’t particularly like. He earned about $1.2 million a year and hated going to the office. “I feel like I’m wasting my life”, he told the author, “when I die, is anyone going to care that I earned an extra percentage point of return”? He recognized the incredible privilege of his pay and status, but his anguish seemed genuine. His summation of his life was, “If you spend 12 hours a day doing work you hate, at some point it doesn’t matter what your paycheck says.”
What burden wears you down? The invitation is to every single one of us, for we all carry a heavy load of some sort. I’ve heard from some of you how hard you struggle with balancing work and family life, struggling to spend more time with your young children—enjoying supper with them, reading to them before you tuck them into bed; or not missing an important event in their young lives. And we are invited to bring that burden to Jesus, to take his yoke upon ourselves, and to find rest. You might be wondering how putting a yoke around your neck could be any help in relieving your burden. It would seem that the yoke would just add more weight, more responsibility.
But note how Jesus phrases his invitation to take his yoke. “Take my yoke upon you…and learn from me”. The Hebrew word that is commonly translated as Law is TORAH. And the basic meaning of TORAH is instruction. That is why the Jews refer to the Bible, especially the first 5 books, as TORAH. The Jews don’t primarily mean Law as we use the word to refer to rules and regulations. They mean instruction. When Jesus invites us, who are weary and are carrying heavy loads to take his yoke upon ourselves, he is inviting us to be learners, not to receive a new set of laws or rules or regulations to be obeyed or requirements to be fulfilled or penalties to be paid.
Jesus says, “Come, take the yoke of instruction upon you, learn from me, and you will find rest.” The word REST is very simple—it means exactly what you think it means. It means, when you’ve been hiking up the mountain, carrying a heavy backpack, coming to a shaded spot under a tree and taking off all of that gear, sitting down and finding rest. It means, when you’ve been carrying your heavy groceries home, you can set them down and rest. It means, when you have been traveling for work most of the month, you arrive home finally, unpack, enjoy a warm bath, your own bed, and rest. It means, when asked, “How are you?”, to not pridefully declare how busy you are, but to respond with gratitude for the invitation to rest from all you are doing, to assess how you really are and what you need. We find rest when we feel that our labors are meaningful. Barry Schwartz, a visiting professor of management at the University of California, Berkeley, says: “You don’t have to be curing cancer. We want to feel that we’re making the world better, even if it’s as small a matter as helping a shopper find the right product at the grocery store. You can be a salesperson, or a toll collector, but if you see your goal as solving people’s problems, then each day presents 100’s of opportunities to improve someone’s life, and your satisfaction increases dramatically,” Schwartz says. The promise of Jesus is that you can find rest from carrying your heavy load.
It is important to remember that this is a promise that comes from Jesus. In contrast to the yoke of slavery that a victorious military commander might place upon us, Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us not as a conqueror, but more as one who himself has been conquered…and crucified. And along with the invitation is the assurance and the promise that Jesus will always be present with us. If you think about putting on the Yoke of Christ, it is clear that you will not be going through any experience alone. At the beginning of the sermon, I described how a yoke was a wooden frame placed over the necks of two animals, keeping the 2 animals going in the same direction. The animals became yoked mates. Well, I like what that says about putting on the Yoke of Christ. We become Yoked Mates with Christ, who helps us to go in the same direction. Isn’t that a wonderful image for how we might relate to one another as sisters and brothers in Christ. In the church, if we could go to one another and become yoked mates—young and old, male and female, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight, rich and poor—bearing each other’s burdens, we then can come to experience the REST which Jesus promises.
The 1.2 million friend added a final comment to the author of the article in The NY Times Magazine, “I’m jealous of everyone who had the guts to do something that made them happy; it seemed like too big a risk for me to take when we were in school.” The author described himself as one of the also-rans of the class, the ones who failed to get the jobs they wanted when they graduated. They had been passed over by McKinsey & Company and Google, Goldman Sachs and Apple, the big venture-capital firms and prestigious investment houses. The author made the decision to go into the field of journalism. Some of his classmates thought he was making a huge mistake by ignoring all the doors Harvard Business School had opened for him in high finance and Silicon Valley. What his classmates didn’t know was that those doors, in fact, had stayed shut—and that as a result, he was saved from the temptation of easy riches. The author has been thankful ever since, grateful that his bad luck made it easier to choose a profession that he’d loved. He learned the valuable lesson that “the smoothest life paths sometimes fail to teach us about what really brings satisfaction day to day; finding meaning, whether as a banker or a janitor, is difficult work. Usually life, rather than a business-school classroom, is the place to learn how to do it.”
So whatever your burden, I encourage you to respond to the invitation of Jesus. But remember, Jesus will not put his yoke upon you. Jesus can only invite you to take his yoke. You have to choose to put it on yourselves. Let him teach you. Let him give you rest. Go to Jesus as a learner, ready to be instructed. Ask him to teach you about your burden, and be prepared to receive an answer you had never considered before.