Jesus said, Come unto me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy; I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you… For my yoke is easy to wear, my load is light’.
I remember that I first met this verse as part of the communion service at the parish church I went to when I was a child. These were the words with which, every Sunday, the congregation was invited to take communion. I can remember that even then I liked hearing familiar words – and words so comforting and healing – every Sunday. You might think that a junior school child would know little of burdens or weariness, but I remember vividly that these words spoke to me. Since my childhood the church has always been a place where I know I can bring burdens and set them down – a place where I can find rest. ‘Come unto me’ says Jesus – and I still do, every time, and fall into his arms as I fall into the pew.. with relief. I have known, as you have all known, something of the ‘burden of being human’, the so many ways in which life can become ‘heavy’, and I find in Jesus, in the faith I share with all of you, the lightness of being..
If we were each asked to say what our burdens are, what things make us weary, what things make life seem heavy, I imagine that we might have quite a bit to say. The coming of old age, worries about those we love, financial worries, health problems, concerns about the state of the church – it could be all sorts of things. Maybe at a less personal level we’re also worried about poverty in the world, or the threat of terrorism, or the situation in Raqqa – or maybe global warming. Perhaps there are things that keep us awake at night, things we can hardly bear to name even to ourselves. These are real burdens – and this text and our faith have always offered us the reassurance that we can bring them to Jesus and he will lighten the load. Are we weak and heavy laden? What a friend we have in Jesus… Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Last weekend I went to one of those rural life museums where there is always a wooden yoke – one of those things made to go over the shoulders so that you can carry heavy pails of milk – or so that oxen can be yoked to the plough. They always look so uncomfortable, almost like those wooden stocks you can see on village greens sometimes. Does life feel like that – as though you are yoked to something heavy, held down by a great weight, almost as though you are being punished? Jesus says that life should not be like that – it should be light, easy…
But the first hearers and readers of this Gospel text almost certainly did not hear it just exactly the same way as we do. They were burdened by many things as we are, probably many of them much more than we are in all sorts of ways. But the burden they carried to which this text speaks was a very specific one. It was the burden with which St Paul struggles in the letter to the Romans – the burden of how to be good, how to act with justice and mercy and love in a complicated world, how to be a good, and a righteous, person. The passage from the letter to the Romans is a passage with which many people identity and it’s often quoted – here is Paul saying, ‘I can’t do it! I try to do the right thing, but I find myself doing the very thing I most detest! Why is it that I can’t do what I know is right and good? Why is it so hard to be a good person? The good which I want to do I fail to do!’ I guess that most of us, if we’re honest, know what it feels like to end up doing the very thing you know isn’t right. Whether it’s having a cigarette when you’ve decided to give up, whether it’s putting on the tumble drier when you know it’s bad for the planet, whether it’s losing your temper with someone or whatever it is – you know you’ve blown it. You don’t do the good you wanted to do. Or maybe you look back over life and see that you didn’t become the human being you hoped to be – and you struggle to come to terms with that. This is the kind of burden Jesus is talking about. The people of his time talked about this sort of thing all the time – still struggling like us with the whole project of being a human being before God. They wanted to know – as we do – the best way to be human, the best discipline to live under – to keep you on the straight path, the path to life.
There was once a time in my life when I longed for the kind of faith that would tell me exactly what to do about all sorts of things, that would give me the answers and show me how to be a good person, a righteous person. I see now that it’s often part of being young to want a life that comes with clear rules, so that you can take them and live by them and so get it right. I can understand that longing well. It was into this kind of culture that Jesus came. People everywhere were looking for a rule of life – to be yoked to – so that they could plough through life as well as possible. There were many teachers around – and there were many ideas about how this could be done. There were debates about which commandments were the most important, about whether it was more important to intend to keep them or actually to keep them, about whether the commandments applied in every case or whether there could be exceptions. In the way of these things, the most popular teachers were often those who imposed the most clear and rigorous rules. There were always those who could attract followers by saying that the way to righteousness was to go into the desert, to give up all your possessions, to be celibate and to think hard in the baking sun of the wilderness. That had great appeal for some. Others were attracted by the idea of fasting, of condemning other people who sinned, of keeping yourself pure from the corrupt world around you. For some it was about trying to detach yourself from the filthy world of matter and bodies and sex and all of that and trying to achieve a higher state of knowledge from everyone else. For others still it was about grasping, remembering and keeping a complicated set of rules and customs in the hope of keeping yourself in check and under control and pure. It was into this rather frenzied world that Jesus came – and what did he say? –
‘Come to me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy; I will give you rest. My yoke is easy, my burden is light..’
Jesus did not approach people with a heavy load of commandments, laws and customs. He seems to have thought that you could get too heavy about all of that. He didn’t try to convince people that they ought to be fasting or cutting back on life’s joys. He didn’t come with a complicated philosophy that you needed a doctorate to understand. There was nothing about Jesus that was ‘heavy’ in any of those senses. He told them that his burden was light.
When people asked him, as in that context and in the midst of all those debates, which were the most important commandments – he said simply ‘Love God and love your neighbour’. Nothing particularly original or astonishing, nothing heavy or erudite or esoteric or complicated. It was light as air in its simplicity. You can imagine his hearers saying, ‘What! – is that all? Nothing more?’ Something as simple as that was hardly going to make a name for him – was hardly going to satisfy the thirst for a system you could hold on to and spend a life working out – and hardly sounded like the answer to the great struggles of the day. But that was what Jesus said. His burden – in terms of its simplicity – was light.
Jesus uses that image of the yoke to say that he places no heavy burden on human beings, to drag us down. He wants to set us free from the restraining yokes of sin, worries, death – whatever it is. His burden is light – only two commandments and the overwhelming message of God’s saving love to make us lighthearted with thankfulness and joy in the light of God’s grace.
I have sometimes heard it said that sermons ought to be challenging – that I ought, in preaching, to comfort the afflicted yes, but also to afflict the comfortable. But I have never yet found a single human being who did not need to hear these comforting words of Jesus. Even the most apparently successful or contented people have burdens to bear, and most of the people I know, if they let me close, reveal that the burden of being human is often-times a heavy one. This is not true only of exceptional people, but of all of us. There are days when it’s hard to pull yourself out of bed, hard to carry the responsibilities you have, just hard to be alive. For any of us, good news comes when the burden is lightened. All of us, I think, receive the news with relief that Jesus offers an easy yoke.
But as I look at yokes, those wooden beams that go over someone’s shoulders, I remember something else about Jesus. He bore a yoke. He took upon himself a wooden yoke – but not the yoke of the farmer, the yoke that is placed on the shoulders of oxen or of the milk carrier. He took on his shoulders the wooden beam of the cross, and carried that heavy burden, for all of us, to his death. He bore it for us, somehow to set us free from all that would bind us. He carried it for us. His burden was heavy and the yoke that was placed on him was far from easy to wear. But there is something about the story of his journey to the cross, carrying that wooden beam, that means that our burdens were carried for us and our lives made lighter..
If there are burdens to bear in this life, as there surely are, Jesus never wanted his followers to be burdened by the demands of religion, to be ground down by systems, rules and impossible doctrines. He wanted rather to lift burdens and lighten loads. As far as he was concerned the yoke of faith should be simple and light –life-giving and freeing – and so that we could find strength to bear the burdens of a human life. He wanted to lift any burdensome religion from every shoulder so that men and women could be free to love God and love their neighbour and to flourish in the love of God. He took upon himself the burden of the cross, the yoke of suffering, so that we could set free.
Being part of the Church, part of the community of Jesus, should be an experience that brings hope to our lives, one that lightens the burdens of heart and conscience, that sets us free to bear what life brings and to live as those who know we are loved by God. With strength renewed we embrace the two commandments which sum up, in a beautiful and light simplicity, the call of God to every human being. Love God and love your neighbour.
And somehow if there is a banner outside any church it ought to tell the world that here people could find rest from the struggle, balm for their wounds and something to lighten their steps. Perhaps our next church banner should simply say…
‘Come to me, all who are weary and are heavy laden; I will give you rest’.
It’s my prayer that we can all hear that promise for ourselves. It’s my prayer that Taunton might know that hear in this place burdens can be laid down. It’s my hope that if we can offer anything to the people round here it might be light and gentle.. without burden or condemnation, but always with love and grace and a true lightness.. We are all carrying so much – look at the faces of the people in the streets, on the buses or behind the steering wheels, and see those who long and need to hear,
‘Come to me, all who are weary and are heavy laden; I will give you rest’.
May God give us all grace to hear that message and to carry it with infinite courage and gentleness to those around us. Amen.