A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Yoke of Christ


Jesus Healing Blind Man (Ethiopian Icon)

Pentecost +6
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
Zechariah 9:9–12, Psalm 145:1-13, Romans 7:21-8:6, Matthew 11:25-30

“I have resolved to know nothing among you except Christ Jesus and Him crucified.” In the name of the living God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear and my load is not hard to carry.” Why is the Christian life so often joyless? You might think that’s a rhetorical question. If you have an answer, tell me afterward. Why is discipleship so hard? Why is it the case that even we Christians, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, live lives of quiet desperation? Now, maybe you don’t. In which case, I fear that I have nothing to proclaim to you today, sorry, apologies in advance. Or maybe you just need to look a little deeper today. I’ll try not to look too closely at you if you need to go a little deeper.

Because maybe you don’t feel that way, but far too often I do. After almost four decades as a Christian, I still don’t live the life with Christ that I want to, I still don’t treat my family, friends and people I meet as I want to. And yes, Kate, emphasis on my family. I still far too often given into sinful patterns of anger, frustration, despair, and other acts that do not reflect my belief and my calling as a child of God. Truth is, most days, I barely have it all hanging together, and it wouldn’t take much for it just all to come tumbling down. Now, this is neither a spiritual direction or a therapy session, so I’ll spare you from the details for a change, but the fact of the matter is that’s true for me. And from talking to some of you and talking to the people in my day job and from what I read online, I don’t believe I’m alone as a Christian. Despite our beliefs, so many of us are hanging on by a thread. I at least can find Christian living to be very hard.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart and you’ll find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear and my load is not hard to carry. Paul found the Christian life hard too. Not that long ago, I preached on it for Isaiah’s baptism and we heard it again just last week. Not that long ago, in Romans 6, Paul is saying things like in baptism we are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. You can hear the soundtrack, but chapter 7 follows chapter 6, not just in the Book of Romans but in our life of discipleship. Uh-oh. He starts out calm, but I can imagine the tension building in his writing as the pencil gets harder and harder on the paper, as it were. I find it to be a law that I do not do the things I want to do, and those things I don’t want to do are exactly the things I do. And there is no health in me.

If your Christian life is a struggle, you’ve got St. Paul, St. Paul, as a companion. By the end of our reading today, he’s in a really bad place. By verse 24, he’s crying out, “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death?” Because chapter 7 always follows chapter 6. Despite our intentions, and I’ve done this work long enough to believe that most of you have good intentions, I do too. Despite our intentions, despite our effort, despite the fact that our sin was indeed canceled in those waters of baptism, there is a law at work in our flesh and we do not do what we know to be good. And instead, we do not just what is bad but the very thing that we hate; the sudden outburst of anger, the habitual sin. Have you ever gotten there and just gone, “Really? Four decades of Christian life, really? Am I not better than this by now?”

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear and my load is not hard to carry. The issue is what we’re yoked to. Now, I realize we may be in East Tennessee, but the world is changing and we’re not so much an agricultural community anymore. What a yoke is a wooden cross piece that is tied to two animals, usually horses or oxen. It’s tied to them so that they go in a straight line together and so that they can pull a weight behind them, cart or a plow. A yoke limits freedom, a yoke attaches us to a weight to pull. In the biblical tradition, when applied to people, the image of a yoke is always about obligation, but almost always about slavery as well.

The issue is what we’re yoked to. What are the yokes in our lives as Christians that rob us of joy and peace and freedom? What are the weights we have been constrained to pull? I have three that I want to consider today, there are probably more. The first, of course, is the yoke of sin. We are bound to it and it is a weight. We get distracted from the kingdom and its promises. Looking instead, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago. Looking at our own tummy and other parts down there, we seek to feed our appetites and we’re trapped, we’re yoked. This produces alienation from God. If I’m looking down at myself, I can’t see Him. And this constant fascination with me also leads to all those acts we commit as a result of the alienation and distraction. If we’re yoked to sin, the sins flow out of it.

And again, I believe most of us, our intentions are good. I’ve met very few people in this world who wake up and say, “I want to be evil.” Rather, in the rat race of life, we’re just looking for a little comfort, a little pleasure, a little peace, and yes, a little power, maybe just to make our lives better, maybe just to get out of debt. But see, the problem is, because it’s comfort, pleasure, peace and power is all on our own terms. And as one step follows another, we get farther and farther away from the people we want to be because the yoke of sin keeps pulling us in one direction; away from God. Seems to me a second yoke we are often tied to is the yoke of other people’s sins. Bad enough that I’m yoked to my sins, but I’m yoked to other people’s sins. People hurt us sometimes. Sometimes they hurt us hard, sometimes inadvertently, most often, I believe, because I think people’s intentions are generally pretty good. But man, sometimes they just plain hurt us deliberately.

What’s the result of that? Wounds in our soul. Wounds, real wounds. If we’ve suffered other people’s sins of a certain degree, the wounds may actually be physical. But there’s certainly wounds in our soul. You may have noticed by now, I’ve been preaching up here since January and you’ve never heard me talk about Africa. Oh, Father Les, isn’t missionary life so exciting? Too many wounds in my soul. And the wounds in our souls are bad enough because they are a yoke, they drag us further and further away from God. And because we’ve been wounded, we, in turn, say I just need that pleasure, that peace, that comfort. We lash out at our spouse, we do all sorts of things because of those wounds in our soul. But the other thing that happens is we are open to unforgiveness. Part of the yoke of other people’s sins is our hearts harden. “Well, you can say what you want about him, but I’ll never forget it, you don’t know what he’s really like.” It’s commonly said that the lack of forgiveness is like drinking poison yourself and waiting for the other person to die.

And I’ve consumed enough of that particular drag that I can tell you it’s true. And perhaps the worst thing about unforgiveness is the original wound of the other person’s sin is bad enough, unforgiveness means you have the joy of being wounded again and again and again, every day you think of it, it never stops. So we’re yoked to our sin and we’re yoked to other people’s sins. Feeling wretched yet? Let’s keep going. The third one may be the most controversial for some of you, but I also want to suggest that one of the problems in an assembly like this is that we’ve also been yoked to false discipleship because see, we have the good intentions. We do, I believe that, I’m not being sarcastic. And we want to get better and we cast about and we find things like the gospel of self-improvement, the gospel of self-salvation and even. The secular self-help industry, as of 2020, had 85,253 titles you could buy from a bookstore. It’s a $16.5 billion industry and there are 15,000 new self-help books produced every year.

It’s good business. The Christian discipleship publishing industry is not as big because Christian publishing is not as big, but it is the largest single non-fiction part of Christian publishing, Christian novels outpace it. But beyond that, if you’re talking non-fiction, Christian discipleship, 40, 50 books a year. I tried to get a list of just the books published this year so I could give you a number to make my point and I mean, I’ve got a baby, I couldn’t spend that much time on the internet. It was taking too long, it’s a lot of books. What does this tell us? That there’s so many self-help books, so many Christian discipleship books. Well, first it tells us people are hurting, I think I’ve already made that point.

But bear with me, it also tells us that they don’t work. They’re predicated, no matter how true they are, and there’s good advice in self-help books, there are good discipleship programs out there. There’s one problem with both of them, they don’t take into account the human condition. And the whole industry is predicated on the idea that, “Okay, this year I’ll buy this book from Dr so-and-so and I’ll give it a try for six weeks til I get bored And in about six months, I’ll be feeling bad about myself again and I’m not going to go back to that book because that book obviously didn’t work. So I’m going to buy a new book.” And again and again and again. Again, Christian discipleship books, I’ve read more of them, probably they’re larger than my weight, the amount of books I’ve read on Christian discipleship. They’re good, self-help books, good. But the whole industry exists on the fact that they don’t work. Otherwise, why would I ever buy another one?

Here’s the point. We can learn a lot, but we cannot learn ourselves into better behavior. And so we’re yoked to a view of false discipleship that tells us that somehow it’s up to us, and also that somehow if we just have the right program, the right moral effort, or maybe if we hold our tongue just right and lift our right foot up, we can fix it. Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear and my load is not hard to carry. The best news I have for you this morning is today, as always, Jesus offers us a great exchange. He will take my yoke, your yoke and give us His in return. We can exchange our sin, the sin of others, our constant striving to be better.

Lord, this year it’s going to be different. I will not get annoyed at Kate when she does that one thing she always does that drives me crazy. This time I won’t. We can lay all that down. He can take it from us, and give us instead a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light. And I’m telling you, that’s not abstract, that’s a promise today, as it is every day. The yoke of sin can be lifted, forgiven, set free from bondage. Instead of scrambling for it and doing not so nice things for it, we can receive comfort, pleasure, peace and power. Not our own, but His. We can be set free from our baseless desires and our constant attempt to self-justify them. The yoke of other people’s sins can be lifted today. Healing of the wounds that other people have inflicted upon you and the ability to forgive even the most outrageous and painful and deliberate wrongs. Sounds like an aside, it’s not, it’s a crucial part of the sermon. Today is our healing service, we’re having anointing today.

If, like me, you’re one of those people who’s gone around and said, “I can never let go of that thing that that man did,” come get anointed. Let’s reverse that process today. The yoke of false discipleship can be lifted. Christian life is not a self-improvement project. Elsewhere, Paul writes in Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not allow anyone to put the yoke of slavery on you again.” Have you ever noticed the old one, two step we do as Christians? I was an adult convert to the faith, so I saw it as an adult and I felt it. Lord, we just thank you that Les is set free. Congratulations, brother, you’re set free. By the way, if you want to be serious, Christine, you got to do this, this, this, this and this. When they come to put the yoke of slavery on you say, “No thanks, I’ve already got Jesus, yeah.”

Instead of, “I try this program, it fails. I feel bad about myself. I wander along in darkness, I buy another book and I try this program. It fails, so I feel bad about myself and wander along in darkness.” Instead of that cycle, let’s try this one. You’re here, you’re here in part because of the mysterious call of God upon your lives that gets you up on a Sunday morning when you could be sleeping. And you’re also here because it works for you at some level. Both of those are good. But you’re here, so make the most of it. Receive the Word, receive the sacrament, receive absolution, to get that yoke of sin off your shoulders. And receive the encouragement of one another. Let’s not give up meeting together, but encourage one another.

Imagine a church full of encouragement rather than the one, two step. So come, dwell here and then rest. Just rest. Because in the sacrament, a seed is planted and if we rest, it will grow. Someone came by our house the other day, just yesterday, and said, “Oh, you’re growing tomatoes.” And I understand the common language, but it’s kind of funny, isn’t it? Growing tomatoes. I’m not growing tomatoes, I have some tomatoes that seem to be growing and I’m contributing nothing to it. Let your Christian life be like that. Receive the seed and rest, and let’s see what grows. And what will grow will be different for each of us as we wait in peace. Yeah, there’ll be some practices we pick up, I say the Daily Office every day, I’ll never tell you to do it because the practices of our Christian lives should be traditions and rituals and practices that are practices of grace that work for our individual situation and that are freely chosen.

Rest, see what grows. See what you want to try out, and then wait and see, wait in that peace. And as your life changes, as your situation changes, repeat. With all due respect to all those good authors who wrote good books, I’m not so sure about the Christian discipleship movement because I can no more grow disciples than I can tomatoes, but Jesus grows both. We live a life of rest and grace, when the yoke is easy and the burden is light. If the yoke is hard and the load is heavy, it’s not Christ. Because even if it’s good, even if it’s something we should might be doing, if it’s too heavy, it’s a good sign that we’ve moved ahead of the Spirit’s leading. He’s patient with us, He moves us at a speed that will build us up and never tear us down. Christ promises that the yoke will be easy, the burden light, and we will find rest.

There’s your rule of thumb for how to deal with this. This is not to say that sin is unimportant or discipleship is unimportant, it’s to say that when it becomes a burden, it’s time to let it go. Paul will have more to say about this next week when he gets to Romans 8. For now, just remember, it is finished and make that it as big as you need it to be to feel the freedom. In Luke, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” That’s the news today. And if you’re like me, the old man is full of buts and waits and I don’t knows, so I’m just going to read it one more time in case it hasn’t been clear. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke on you and learn from me because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear and my load is not hard to carry.

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