April 15, 2007

We May Come
Matthew 11:28-30

Every year as the NCAA basketball season winds down, teams are selected to participate in the national championship tournament. Certain teams seem to play in the tournament every year—people at Kansas, Duke, Connecticut, Florida and UCLA rarely feel much anxiety as the announcements are made. Other schools, like Cornell, Iona and Penn State, go so infrequently, if ever, that they need not think about the event at all. But then there are other teams sitting on the bubble, so to speak. Their records are either marginal or the level of competition that they played during the regular season underwhelming, so they wait nervously for the selections to be announced. Drexel was in just that situation this past season. Playing against generally marginal opponents in the Colonial Athletic League, the Drexel Dragons waited in hopes that their 23-9 record would be sufficient to earn them an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament. More than anything else, they wanted an invitation. It never came.

Invitations can mean a great deal to us, can’t they? An invitation to a birthday party, day at the beach, or Sunday dinner almost always brings a smile to our faces. An invitation signals importance and a sense of belonging. An invitation helps drive away unwanted feelings of loneliness and lingering thoughts of yet another day or evening alone. “Someone thought enough of me to ask me to join them,” we typically think when invited for some occasion. “Someone cares.”

And it certainly hurts when invitations never come. Like the Drexel
Dragons, deeply disappointed to be left out of the NCAA tournament after an otherwise rewarding season, we too feel hurt at times when invitations fail to arrive. No one ever calls. No one asks us over to their house. Or worse yet, others around us receive invitations for this event or that, but we never do. In those cases, disappointment gives way to feelings of outright rejection. We not only feel forgotten, but unwanted. Invitations, once again, matter.

Here in Matthew 11:28, we find the greatest invitation ever extended in human history. It is an invitation, not to a party, but to paradise; not for an evening, but for all of eternity. It is an invitation, not simply to winners, but to the biggest losers this side of heaven. And it is an invitation, not from some selection committee, but from Christ himself. “Come to me, all of you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

But who, we must ask, is Jesus speaking to? Jesus, you will notice, uses two similar but nevertheless different images here. He refers first to the weary—those who are tired and exhausted, those who feel totally spent. You surely know the feeling after a difficult week at work, stressful stretch of sleep-deprived days because of restless children or unending assignments, or an anticipated 3-mile run that turned into 7 or 8 when you got lost along the way. I felt thoroughly exhausted just a few weeks ago when, once again, I failed to act my age. It was Saturday, and I wanted to get various things done around the yard. I overdid it. I sifted and spread a truckload of topsoil, distributed lime over my entire lawn—1.5 acres—and planted grass in several places. And to plant the grass more effectively, I used a machine—an “overspreader”—that Ken Davis recommended. It worked well, but it is a real beast. A several-hundred pound monster that shakes the daylights out of whoever uses it! And by the end of the day, I had more than had my fill. I was sore, stiff and totally exhausted.

The people to whom Jesus is speaking, however, are not weary because of excessive work or unending assignments. They are, instead, weary because of an intensive search that keeps coming up dry. Have you ever looked and looked for something that you simply could not find. Perhaps you put something in a special place, only to forget a short time later where that special place was! And you looked and looked, growing increasingly frustrated at your inability to find what you were searching for. I’ve done this occasionally, even with bibliographic information. And it is tiresome—exhausting—to keep looking and looking for something that you know is there but just cannot find.

That is why many of Christ’s listeners are so weary. They are primarily Jewish, and they’ve heard about God breaking into history and sending a so-called Messiah ever since they were knee-high to a grasshopper. They’ve heard one candidate after another claim to be God’s promised one, and they’ve been taught this by one group and that by another. All through Matthew’s gospel, we sense the tension that arises out of seemingly conflicting religious claims, and everyday people are no doubt struggling with who and what to believe. Even John the Baptist, who spoke about Jesus’ coming and eventually baptized him when he arrived, had lingering questions as to Jesus’ true identity. “Are you the one who is to come,” John had his followers ask Jesus just a short time ago, “or are we to wait for another (11:3)?” People are searching for meaning and trying to make sense out of their lives. They are searching for God, and they have a sneaking suspicion that he is around somewhere. But how does one find him? What does one do? To whom does one turn?

I wish Deb was here this morning to share some of her testimony. Among other moving elements of her journey to Christ, I remember how she describes a time when, as a young teenager, she sat in the pew of her church in Marlboro, MA. In obvious frustration, she prayed something like this: “Dear God, I’ve been told all of my life that you exist and that you care about me. But I can’t find you anywhere. If you really do exist and if you really do care, you will need to find me.” Her search was exhausting and disappointing up to that point. She was weary from several years of looking for God, and so were many people in Jesus’ audience. So, no doubt, are some of us here this morning.

We live in a pluralistic world filled with endless claims and ideas. We are told that we can experience peace and the presence of the divine through any number of religions, prophets, philosophical systems, and spiritual exercises. Within the Christian tradition itself, we hear so many seemingly conflicting viewpoints and ideas that we are often left to wonder if we really do read the same book. What are we to believe? Where is God, anyway? The search can be frustrating and very exhausting. “Come to me, all you that are weary…,” Jesus responds. “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God himself.”

But Jesus likewise addresses another group of people in this moving invitation. There are those, as I’ve said, who are weary from searching for God, but there are also those who are burdened down once they have supposedly met him. To be “burdened” suggests more than exhaustion from a difficult job or long journey. It implies unwieldy backpacks and heavy luggage—walking through an airport with too many overweight suitcases! Carrying 80-pound bags of solar salt down the steps to the water softener. The general feeling of being unmercifully weighed down.

Such heavy loads, however, need not be physical. In fact, emotional and spiritual luggage can often weigh far more than packed boxes or overflowing grocery bags. Think, for a moment, about how tiresome it can be when we try to lift and carry the burdens that certain other people sometimes place upon us. A perfectionistic parent or spouse. A hopelessly demanding supervisor or teacher. Try as hard as you might, you simply cannot get it right. You have to watch where you step and guard every word that you say. And then, when you perhaps sense that you are finally beginning to make progress, they add yet another expectation to the ever-expanding list. It can be overwhelming, to say the least. You feel like you can’t win.

Unfortunately, God is often made out to be the same way: a rigid, demanding deity who is incapable of being pleased. His expectations are impossible to meet, and he keeps adding one obligation on top of another. Jesus, as I’ve said repeatedly over the last several weeks, goes at it with the Pharisees again and again over this very issue. They have erected an unwieldy list of rules and regulations and placed them upon the backs of all of their followers. Jesus says precisely this in Matthew 23:4: “They [the scribes and Pharisees] tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others,…” They have taken the laws of God, given as a lamp to guide his people, and expanded them to such a degree that people can hardly breathe without worrying about their spiritual well-being. “Did I do enough for God today? Did I earn his favor? Was he pleased with everything I said, thought and ate? Did I witness to enough people?” If you think pleasing a perfectionistic parent can be difficult, try pleasing an overbearing God.

It is, quite frankly, time for us to finally put a good bit of religion and all of the guilt that it often brings to rest. Kill it and bury it, once and for all, I say. You can, after all, legislate the life out of virtually anything. I love, for example, cooking dinner for my family, but if cooking three meals a day, every day, became an expectation at my house, I’m sure that my attitude would change. Or our family chore list at home. I’m convinced that there is something psychological about chore lists—my wife and I have actually discussed it. I enjoy doing various jobs around the house, and I know that they need to be done. But something happens when certain chores end up on our family chore list hanging in our kitchen. You cross off a completed chore, and another always appears. Then another and another. And even though our list is intended to be a helpful reminder rather than a debilitating device, it sometimes has the opposite effect. Do more. Work more. The joy of loving and serving somehow evaporates, and the burden to accomplish grows heavier and heavier. “Come to me with your weighty loads,” Jesus suggests, “and I will give you rest.”

Endless searching. Heavy burdens. Weariness. Exhaustion. Ongoing attempts to earn favor. Numbing guilt. Fear of failure. Somehow I don’t believe that these are what God intended when he raised Jesus from the dead. I think he set his sights far higher than that. Jesus says as much in the two verses that immediately follow. A yoke, as many of you already know, is a shaped wooden crosspiece that is typically placed on the necks of two oxen. I’ve seen many of them in Zambia and elsewhere. Such a yoke enables the oxen to move and work together. But they are often heavy and cumbersome. Sometimes they don’t fit particularly well and, if not adjusted, dig into the animals’ flesh. Yokes, therefore, sometimes appear in the Bible as a symbol of oppression and pain— foreign nations are at times a heavy yoke around Israel’s neck. The law with its ruthless obligations is a yoke around people’s necks. Such yokes are weighty and burdensome, and they leave us weary, discouraged and utterly exhausted.

In this great invitation here in Matthew 11, Jesus in effect offers to remove these awful yokes from around our necks—like throwing a caught fish back into the river or releasing a bird from its cage. Jesus will not, however, leave us “yokeless,” wandering aimlessly to do our own thing. Instead, he fits each of us with another yoke that he himself has tailor-made. The carpenter that he is, each yoke is “easy” or, translated differently, “fits perfectly”—they are not mass-produced in a factory. They don’t dig into our bodies or souls. They are not heavier than they should be. And most importantly of all, each yoke, yours and mine, is placed upon our necks and—his! Jesus is working with us, not against us. He is not only inviting us into the light, but leading us there.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens,” Jesus announces, “and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you—it fits well and is light.” It’s quite an invitation. The good news of the Gospel is not a hopelessly long list of dos and don’ts, but a person. The good news of the Gospel is not religion, but a relationship. And the irony of it all is simply this. If you settle for religion, you never really enjoy the relationship. But when you genuinely fall in love with Jesus and release your heavy burdens to him as he has asked, you inevitably live a life that is infinitely more pleasing to God than any religious system could ever produce.