Sunday, July 06, 2008

Purpose: The Deeper Meaning of Jesus' Call to "Rest"

[This sermon was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

You may have heard the story before of the man who came upon a construction site and stuck around to watch some brick masons do their work.

He called out to one and asked, “What are you doing?” This guy, nose in the mortar, grunted impatiently, “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m laying this row of bricks.”

But not satisfied with that answer, the man asked a second brick mason the same question, “What are you doing?” This second guy looked up and with a smile on his face said, “I’m helping to build a great cathedral! Just think of it, for as long as God wants it to be here, this will be a place where people will come to worship and praise God, get God's comfort, enjoy being with other believers, commit their marriages to God, baptize their children, and be sent out to serve others in Christ’s Name. I have a great job!”

Both brick masons answered the question accurately. But the second one had something the first one lacked. It’s that something Jesus wants you and me to have and He talks about it in today’s Gospel lesson. Let’s pray….

Gracious Jesus: Help us to find our rest in You. Amen.

"Life's greatest burden," Methodist Bishop William Willimon has said, "is not having too much to do, but in having nothing worthwhile to do."

That statement rings true, I think. It’s been my observation that most people are busy, busy to the point of exhaustion and not just with their daily jobs. But, like the first brick mason, not many are sure that the things with which they're busy really matter. And that can wear people out.

In our Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us, "Come to Me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest."

I have always thought that in those words, Jesus was inviting us to cast aside all the oppressive ways of living, all the sins, and all the scurrying we do to prove ourselves to an often bruising and demanding world and to instead accept the acceptance and thrive in the love that comes as a free gift to those who let Him wrap His arms of forgiveness, love, and hope around us.

I still think that's what He means. But, I've come to believe that's only part of what Jesus is inviting us to do when He says, "Come to Me, and I will give you rest." There's something more.

That something more is hinted at when Jesus goes on to say in our lesson: "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."

First of all, there's that word we see translated as “easy.” We like easy. We wish those easy buttons in the Staples commercials really did make all the tough and annoying challenges of life go away. In fact, we speak of people “taking it easy” as doing nothing but hanging out on the beach all our lives.

But in the original Greek of the New Testament, that word translated as easy was an adjective for something or someone that was useful, kind, good for a purpose, suitable.

An easy hammer was one well-suited to driving in nails, for example. In describing His yoke as easy, Jesus was saying that it would be the right fit for us. Chances are the first brick mason had no more business being a brick mason than I would have. I have no talent for it. It doesn’t fit me. Jesus’ yoke custom fits everybody. He has a custom-made one for all of us. That’s what makes it easy.

But there’s a second hint that in inviting us to come to Him and find rest, Jesus means more than letting Him wrap us in grace. A yoke, you know, is a wooden bar put on the backs of oxen so that they can do work in the field. So far as I know, a yoke is never put on just one ox. Yokes are put on two oxen or a team of them. Jesus says, "Take My yoke upon you."

What's He saying? I think this: "I've got work I'm doing. I'm giving the love and provision of God away to the whole human family, so that all who follow Me will have life forever with God. It's sometimes hard work. It requires self-sacrifice and devotion. I laid down My life for this end. But it's fulfilling work. It's joyful work. And I want you to get in harness and join me in doing it! It'll be the lightest burden you've ever felt because finally, you won't feel that you've got too much to do or that you're doing something foreign to your God-given nature; you'll feel that you're doing exactly what you were made to do and I’ll be right beside you. You'll play precisely the role in my mission that was designed into your make-up before you were born!"

Jesus is inviting us to a new way of living. When we turn from sin and the death-bound ways of the world, Jesus empowers us to experience the sense of purpose for which we were made! When we submit to Jesus’ yoke, He gives us the ability to make the right choices, the ones that honor Him, provide adequately for our families, serve others, and fulfill our desire to be useful as well as busy. That's the yoke that Jesus wants to place on our shoulders.

There is a God-given joy that comes to us when we feel that, in however small a way it might be, whether on our jobs or in our lives as family members or neighbors, we're doing God's work for us, loving God and our neighbor in our own unique ways.

Years ago, I heard a sermon by a pastor whose daughter told him as he was tucking her in and having good night prayers with her that she wanted to be an actress. “When I’m playing a part,” the then-twelve year old told her father, “I feel alive!” Twenty years later, that girl is an actress. She never made it big in Hollywood. She found her niche as part of drama troupe at a large church where thought-provoking skits and plays honor God and entertain its community. But that young woman is at ease. She’s wearing the custom-fitting yoke of Jesus, honoring God by doing what Christ calls her to do.

So does a friend of mine who has two master’s degrees, one in Education and the other in Divinity. He’s a brilliant guy and he was always a far better student that I ever was. But he found his niche neither at a university or a church. Instead, he works in retail, allowing him, once he’s clocked out for the day, to do the work that, for him, is easy and that allows him to play his role in Christ’s mission in the world. He provides free computer software and hardware expertise to the large congregation of which he’s a member and to many people in his church and community. Yes, he takes on tasks that he wouldn’t otherwise need to take on. But what looks like hard, unnecessary, after-hours work to others—and would be for me—is easy for him. He’s using his God-given talents to honor God. Whenever we do that, whether on the clock or not, the burden is light. It’s easy.

The yoke of lives set free from futility, the easy burden Jesus invites us to experience in today’s Gospel lesson, comes to those who stop long enough to simply let Jesus love those who have had enough of lives lived only for the almighty buck, or the high opinions of others, or to feed their egos...and who are ready to live with a sense of purpose.

They declare their dependence on God and let themselves be harnessed with Jesus in doing His will and His work in the world. When we allow the love and acceptance of God, given to us through Christ, to saturate our lives, we'll choose doing the important over the urgent and even when we're busy, we'll be at peace. Our hearts and our souls will have true rest, given by the Lord Who loved us all the way to the cross.

Today, why not make your own declaration of dependence on Jesus Christ? As we pray the Lord’s Prayer this morning, resolve that when you say, “Thy will be done,” really mean it. Be open to asking God to help you experience the authentic ease that comes from playing the part in God’s plans for the world which the Creator of the world made just for you. This week, make it your prayer to ask God, “Lord, what do you want me to do today? What ministry of service in Your Name do You want me to perform?”

Then, be prepared to experience the peace that comes from being harnessed as one with Jesus, going where God leads, being who God calls you to be.

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