In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus said, “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (The Message)
I hope that you recognize that as the passage that greets us as we walk through our front door. You may be more familiar, though, with a more traditional translation: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, ESV)
There’s a reason we have chosen that passage to welcome people into this church. Because so many of the people who visit with us are tired. There are a lot of things that cause us to be tired – our jobs, taking care of our families, dealing with kids, taking care of our parents when they get older, health problems, keeping the yard mowed, keeping the car running, cleaning the house, financial responsibilities.
I remember back in the 1970’s, there was a big concern that computers and technology would radically change how many hours a week people would work. In fact, there was testimony given to a Senate sub-committee forecasting that within 20 years, the average American would be working only 22 hours a week. They said, “The great challenge will be figuring out what to do with all the excess time.” And now here we are, 40 years later, how many of you are wondering what to do with all that excess time on your hands?
Our world has become the world of the Red Queen of Alice in Wonderland. She said, “It takes all the running you can do to stay in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” So, we’re tired. When I ask people how they’re doing, that seems to be answer that I hear the most — I’m tired.
But I don’t think Jesus was talking about being tired of taking care of all of our responsibilities at home and at work. Rather, he was talking to people who were tired because of religion. I think there are a couple of reasons why religion can wear you out.
First of all, many of the Jews were tired of religion because the leaders of that day were making their religion a burden. For the Pharisees, it was all about the rules – do this, don’t do that. And when you do it, you have to do it exactly like this. If God has one rule, we’ll add ten more rules to make sure you’re doing that rule right. And if you mess up in even one point, we’re going to let you know.
And when following the rules becomes the primary focus of religion, you can count on a lot of guilt. And guilt is a tremendous burden. In Matthew 23:4, Jesus said of the Pharisees, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders…”
If you are more focused on following the rules than you are on following Jesus, you will find yourself carrying round a heavy load of guilt. And every time you come to church, you’ll find that the preacher has another burden to add to the weight on your shoulders and, before long, you will find yourself exhausted.
And in response to that, Jesus said, “My burden is light.”
But there’s a second reason why people get worn out from religion. I found a quote I love in a book called “Not a Fan” by Kyle Idleman. In this book, Kyle talks about how we shouldn’t be fans of Jesus; but rather, we should be followers of Jesus. And he made a statement in that book that really made an impression on me. He said, “Fans grow tired of trying to maintain an outer appearance that doesn’t match an inner passion.” Let me repeat that. “Fans grow tired of trying to maintain an outer appearance that doesn’t match an inner passion.”
To put it another way, if we do not have a passion for Jesus Christ, then following Christ will always be a burden.
I read something recently about the famous tennis player, Andre Agassi, that made me sad. I’m sure you all know who I’m talking about. From 1986-2006, he was one of the top tennis players in the world. He turned pro when he was 16 years old and he won the Grand Slam eight times over the course of his 20-year career.
But in his autobiography, Open, he revealed a secret. It turns out that Andre Agassi doesn’t like tennis. And, in fact, he never has liked it. It was something his father made him do. He hated tennis during his childhood and he continued to hate it throughout most of his career. He writes in his book, “My dad decided before I was born that I would be the number one player in the world.” And Agassi said, “I never chose this life.”
On the outside, you would never guess that his heart wasn’t in it. Agassi put in countless hours of practice. He battled for championships. He was really good at what he did. In fact, in 1995, he became the number one tennis player in the world, just like his father wanted him to. But he never enjoyed it. Because he never chose it, it was never his. And, as a result there was no love, no passion, and tennis was a burden.
It makes me sad to think about that. But it makes me even sadder to realize that that describes a lot of Christians as well. Christians who are really good at what they do. They have their religion all down pat. They know what to say, and what not to say. They can pray the prayers, they can sing the songs. But there’s no love, there’s no passion for God, and so religion will always be a burden.
So, religion can be a burden if it’s all about the rules, but it can also be a burden if we don’t have a passion for following God. And it’s interesting that these two things were exemplified in the two most prominent Jewish groups in the days of Jesus.
We tend to talk mostly about the Pharisees, but there were also the Sadducees. The Sadducees were the ones who filled the roles of Chief Priest and Elders. But to become a Sadducee, you had to be born into the right family. There were other requirements, but it had to be part of your heritage.
But to be a Pharisee, it didn’t matter which family you were born into. Rather, it was your hard work that mattered. Becoming a Pharisee required an incredible amount of study of scripture and theological training.
And it’s interesting that a lot of Christians fit into one of these two categories. Some Christians are like the Sadducees. Their faith is something they’re born into. Like Agassi, it was never really something they chose for themselves. Maybe when you were born, your parents took you to church, and you grew up acting like Christians act, talking how Christians talk, listening to the kind of music that Christians listen to; but you never fell in love with Jesus. Your faith has always been more about honoring your heritage than surrendering your heart.
On the other hand, some Christians are like the Pharisees. They measure their faith by all of their efforts to study and follow the law. Their intellectual knowledge and following all the rules is the goal. But again, even though they say the right things and do the right things, there’s no real love, no passion.
And anybody who finds themselves in either of these two categories will find that religion has become a burden. And so, to them, and to all the other people they want to lay that burden on, Jesus says, “I will give you rest.”
I Will Give You Rest
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28-29).
When Jesus talks about “all you who labor”, he uses a Greek word here doesn’t just mean “work.” We all know what it’s like to come home at the end of a long day at work and be tired. We know what it’s like to work out in the yard all day in the hot sun and come in tired. But the word that’s used here conveys more than that. It means “to be exhausted.”
It’s the same word used in Luke 5:5 where Peter says to Jesus, “We have toiled all night and caught nothing.” Hours and hours of hard work and nothing to show for it, but exhaustion and frustration.
And I would imagine that you know that feeling. And Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Rest is one of the most beautiful promises in all the Bible. It was a promise made to the Israelites as they headed toward the land of Canaan – forty years they traveled in the wilderness, until finally they arrived at a land of rest.
It’s the same promise made to those of us who are Christians as we look forward to heaven. The Hebrew writer says, “There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.” (Hebrews 4:9). In Revelation 14:13, one of the blessings given in that book is this: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on….that they may rest from their labors.”
I don’t know about you, but one of the things that I’m most looking forward to when I get to heaven is being able to rest. I’m not talking about sitting down in a Lazy-Boy recliner with my feet propped up and a remote control to a big screen TV in my hand. That’s not heaven. I just know that heaven will be a place where we won’t experience that feeling of being so tired, so utterly worn out. Heaven is going to be place of rest.
But I don’t think Jesus is talking about heaven here in Matthew 11. I think he’s offering rest for our souls here and now. Somebody to help carry our burden. In Galatians 6:2, Paul says to “Bear one another’s burdens” and we can do that for one another. There have been times in my life when I’ve gone through some things that I just don’t think I could have handled if I didn’t have brothers and sisters in Christ to be there for me. But what we do for one another in a small way, Christ does for us to a much greater measure.
Whatever burden you are carrying right now, Jesus says he’ll be there for you. Whether it’s a problem in your marriage, or maybe your children are in trouble at school or with the law. Maybe it’s the burden of loneliness, the burden of taking care of sick relatives, the burden of disappointment, of rejection, of addictions.
Psalm 55:22 says, “Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” I love the way The Message translates this verse – “Pile your troubles on God’s shoulders — he’ll carry your load, he’ll help you out.”
The reality is that life can sometimes be very difficult. But Jesus says, “Come to me all you who are struggling with life in any way and those of you who have burdens that you can’t carry alone, and I will help you with your struggles.”
Do you remember the last time you made a trip to the airport with all your luggage? Many years ago, we sent our daughter Charity over to Germany to be with her husband. And Charity had absolutely crammed her suitcases as full as she could get them. I think one of them weighed 65 pounds and the other one weighed 83 pounds. We lugged those things all over the airport trying to find the right ticket counter. And, I want to tell you, when the ticket agent took those suitcases from us and we didn’t have to carry them around anymore, that was a wonderful feeling. No more burden.
And that’s what Jesus does for us. Jesus is looking for people who are honest enough to admit – “I need some help. I can’t carry these problems alone.” And he’s promised to do it. He said, “I will give you rest.”
My Burden is Light
Then in verse 30, Jesus adds these words: “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:30)
That sounds nice, but does anybody here actually believe that? Most people believe that Christianity is a heavy burden of responsibilities and obligations that only serves to weigh you down. You have to do this, and you can’t do that! And I think to some extent we would tend to agree with that assessment. It’s not easy to be a Christian. Sometimes it’s downright difficult. And yet Jesus says his yoke is “easy,” and the burden is “light.”
Most people feel that the commandments of God are a burden. The Jews of the first century certainly would have said so because the religious leaders of their day had created so many rules and regulations
That’s why Jesus said in Luke 11:46,“Woe to you also, lawyers! For you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers.” What a contrast between the Jewish leaders who created burdens and wouldn’t help the people, and Jesus Christ, who gives us rest.
And all of that would be easy to understand if it hadn’t been for the language Jesus used. He said, “Take my yoke upon you…For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Now, chances are you’ve never used a yoke, but you know what one is. A yoke in the first century was made of wood. You’ve seen pictures, I’m sure, of this huge wooden bar that was placed across the neck and shoulders of an animal. The yoke was part of the harness used to pull a cart or a plow, and it was the means by which the animal’s master kept it under control. I picture this huge wooden bar and then Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you” and I don’t picture anything being light or easy.
The yoke symbolizes submission, it symbolizes obedience. It is a graphic picture of the weight of responsibility. So how can Jesus say that the yoke is easy and the burden is light? Much of my time as a preacher is spent trying to get Christians to take their responsibilities seriously, and here Jesus calls it “easy”.
But I want to suggest a couple of things that will help us to understand how the yoke can be described as “easy”.
- The greater our love for God, the lighter the burden
Notice what John says in I John 5:3. He writes, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.”
I think there is a direct correlation between our love for God and the fact that his commandments are not a burden to us. And I would suggest that the greater our love is, the less of a burden is involved.
Allow me to use Sueanne as an example. There are a lot of things that Sueanne can’t do for herself any more. That means that there are a lot of things that I have to do for her. And I’ll be honest. If I had to do for anyone else what I do for Sueanne, I would describe it as a tremendously heavy burden. But I don’t view it that way with her. I never have and I never will. If anything, I regard it as a privilege to be able to be of help to her.
So what’s the difference? I can only describe it as love. Because of the love I have for her, nothing I do for her is a burden. Rather it’s a joy.
And I think that’s what John had in mind when he wrote those words. Keeping God’s commandments is not a burden because of the love we have for him. So what that means is that if you view Christianity with all of its commandments and requirements as a burden in your life, that may well be an indication of how much you love God. Because I assure you of this: the greater our love for God is, the less we will view the yoke of submission as a burden.
But I think there’s something else involved here.
- The greater our commitment, the lighter the burden
Think for a moment about the most spiritual person you know, someone that you really admire for their spirituality. What is it about them that you admire? It’s probably that what they believe regarding God has influenced every aspect of their lives. It affects the way they act in the church building, it affects the way they act in the workplace, it affects the way they act around their family, and it even affects the way they play games. It affects what they do, and it affects what they say. And that’s what spirituality is – it’s having all of our life under God’s control.
But if Christianity involves that kind of commitment, then how can it possibly be described as a yoke that is easy? Let me share with you the secret of the easy yoke. If you have to think about doing the right thing, then Christianity can be a difficult thing to live out. It is only when the right thing to do becomes the natural thing to do that the yoke is easy.
Let me explain what I mean by that. When I was young, I learned how to play the guitar. And I can tell you that when you first start out, playing a guitar is difficult. You’ve got to learn all these different chords, and you’ve got to think, “OK, I put my index finger here, and my middle finger there.” And so, when I first got started, it was very difficult. And if you’re beginning to learn how to play the guitar, you may think that it will always be this difficult. But the truth is, after months and months of practice, you will eventually get to the point where it becomes easy, when you won’t even have to think about what you’re doing. Your fingers will naturally go where they’re supposed to go, and playing the guitar will become easy.
Let’s make the transition back to the spiritual realm. When you have to constantly be thinking, “I’ve got to be careful not to do this”, or “I’ve got to be careful not to say that”, then living the Christian life can seem like a burden. It’s difficult. But when you have practiced it to the point where you don’t have to think about it, where the right thing to do is the natural thing, then it’s easy. It’s not a burden at all. The yoke is easy and the burden is light.
What I’m talking about is a lifetime of commitment. A lifetime of bringing our lives in line with what God expects of us. The problem is, we focus so much on the moment of decision, the moment of crisis, which is way too late. Because what we do in our lives, how we react to any given situation, has already been decided to a large extent a long time before it ever comes about. To put it in other terminology, we need to be more concerned about the practice than we are with the game. Because who we are will determine how we react in our spiritual lives.
There may be a few baseball fans in the audience this morning. Those of you are have been baseball fans for a long time will likely remember something that happened in 1988 when the Los Angeles Dodgers were playing the Oakland A’s in the World Series. It was the last inning of the first game, the Dodgers were down 4-3, there were two outs, but the tying run was on base and the Dodgers sent Kirk Gibson to the plate to pinch hit. Gibson had injured both legs and he didn’t start that game. In fact, he spent most of the game in the clubhouse getting physical therapy. When the ninth inning got started, he didn’t even have his uniform on. But, in the bottom of the ninth, Gibson put his uniform on and limped up to the plate to pinch hit.
It didn’t seem to make much sense to send an injured player to the plate. The pitcher, Dennis Eckersley, said, “He looked so feeble. I thought I was going to blow him away.” But Kirk Gibson proceeded to hit a home run and then he went limping around the bases. He never got up to the plate for the rest of the series. He had one at-bat. But that man had been preparing his whole life to swing the bat that one time.
Why is it that we think discipline counts in every area of our lives but spirituality? We get up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning, a time of spiritual testing, and we strike out. And we act surprised! “I can’t believe I did that!” But we didn’t do anything to prepare for it, we just showed up at the plate, struck out and then we have the nerve to act surprised.
Listen to me carefully. I don’t think we’re going to make much progress in the area of spirituality until we get our focus off the big moment, and start getting our focus on the lifetime of preparation that leads up to that moment. Because if you have to think about doing the right thing, you’re already in trouble.
When Joseph was tempted by Potiphar’s wife in Genesis 39, he didn’t have to try to figure out what he should do. No! He already knew what his commitment was to God. The decision about what to do was made a long time before Potiphar’s wife ever entered the picture.
And that, in essence is what Paul was saying when he wrote, “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21). “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20). Those verses are saying that it is possible to adopt a kind of life where our initial reaction is the right reaction, where we will be living, breathing, walking examples of Jesus Christ. Is that within our reach? Yes. But how do you get to that point, where the natural reaction is the right reaction?
Nothing you can do is going to give you instant results. There is no three-step program to a life of spirituality. There’s no twelve-step program. Rather, it is a lifetime commitment. A lifetime of disciplining yourself and bringing your whole life under God’s control.
You’re not going to come away after one sermon or even two or three sermons and have your life changed. It’s a lifetime commitment. But I can say this. If you will put yourself in a position of developing spirituality over the course of your lifetime, then when that moment of truth comes, when you stand up to the plate in the bottom of the ninth, and a tough decision gets thrown your way, you’ll be ready for it.
And if your love for God is strong enough, then the burden will be light. And when the right thing to do becomes the natural thing to do, then the yoke becomes easy. The question is, are you living your life in such a way right now so as to lead toward that kind of spirituality?
This morning Jesus extends an invitation: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
There’s one burden in particular that Christ will help us with. David said in Psalm 38, “For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.” (Psa. 38:4).
This morning, Jesus wants to relieve you of the burden you may be carrying — a burden of guilt, a burden of sin.