Ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit the question for humanity has been: “How can I avoid death?” How can I fix the fact that I am no longer what God created me to be? How can I become right with God?
From these questions spring forth every doctrine, every religious practice, every value system on the planet. We have asked the question, and there are always plenty of teachers out there ready to give us an answer.
Jesus says, “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.”
The yoke was an image that rabbis in the days of Jesus used to describe their teaching and the teaching of the law. A true yoke is a wooden crosspiece that fastens two animals together so that they may pull some heavy load, like a wagon or a plow.
The yoke of a teacher, then, is the burden that you bear when you follow their teachings. Jesus says that His yoke is easy. His burden is light.
But it is a little more than that, or rather, a lot more than that. The yoke of which Jesus is speaking, as well as the yokes of other teachers who came before Him, were not just about following one teacher. It was about following their teachings as a means to attain salvation, as a way to please God and enter into His kingdom.
The yoke you bore, if you bore it well, would give you eternal life. The problem is that these yokes are heavy. They are difficult. The teachings of the rabbis are no light weight material. They are burdensome, each teacher seemingly trying to outdo the previous one with more stringent instruction.
Rather than talking about what the teachers were yoking their disciples with in Jesus’ day, I want to talk about the yokes that are prevalent in our age and every age. What teachings are there that attempt to make us right with God? What burdens are we told to take up and carry if we are to impress God, be on His good side, and earn life eternal?
First, there is the true and real burden of God’s Law, the Ten Commandments. Do these and you will please God. In fact, do just one and you will please God. It is the first one.
“You shall have no other gods.” “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Do this and you will live, forever, in paradise. Do this and you will be the very definition of human perfection.
Despite the differences between them, all world religions essentially teach this one thing: keep the commandments and you will be saved. Do as you are instructed and God will grant you His favor. Do the Law and live by it.
Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, and New Age hipsters all agree. Just do what is good. Obey the will of God. That is all there is to it. That isn’t so tough.
But let us go back for a moment. Last week we talked about putting Jesus first, about worshipping and serving Him alone. Yet family, our own goals, our own sins, tend to get in the way.
How did you do this past week keeping Jesus out ahead of your other concerns? Did you meditate on the death and resurrection of Jesus more than you worried about your children’s future? Did you put more money in the offering plate or in your retirement account, on into your cell phone bill? Did you stop sinning because Jesus hates sin, or have you still fallen into temptation?
See, obedience to the commandments is not as easy as it sounds. Love God above all things. Love my neighbor as myself. That all sounds easy enough, that is until I learn that love requires action, not just emotion. “You mean I actually have to do something? Well, then forget it.”
The yoke of God’s Law is not easy. It is not light. It is harsh and oppressive, always reminding us what we are doing wrong, always bringing to light our faults and failures, our evil actions and wicked desires. If we attempt to bear the yoke of the Law we will be crushed beneath its burden.
But then there is this other yoke, one that we have fashioned for ourselves. This yoke is not made up of rules from the Bible. It is made up of the unspoken, assumed rules that we live with every day.
The yoke of this “little law” seems more trivial, but it can actually be more terrifying than God’s Law at times. It comes from the pressure of society, to measure up to what other people expect of us, to do what will please the movers and the shakers.
We see this reflected in our societies obsession with books filled with “steps”. 7 steps to be a perfect father. 8 ways to be a better mother. 27 things you can do to maintain a spotless kitchen. 489 ideas for achieving a higher degree of success!
We must constantly be on our guard, always looking over our shoulder, always trying to better ourselves, trying to impress someone, even if that someone is not God.
The yoke of self improvement and success is burdensome. Its weight is heavy. You will always be a disappointment to someone. As a pastor that is a reality that is constantly in my face. You just can’t please everyone. And the reality is that you shouldn’t even try.
In stark contrast to these two burdensome yokes stands Jesus Christ calling all people to rest under His yoke, His light and easy burden. Jesus is gentle and lowly in heart and He gives us rest for our souls, our souls that are beaten and battered trying to impress God, trying to impress others. His yoke is, not of the Law, but of the Gospel.
To know Jesus Christ is to know the rest that God wishes to give you. Jesus takes up the burden of the Law, God’s Law. He kept perfectly the commandments, He flawlessly obeyed God’s will.
And He bore the weight of our punishment. Jesus carried our cross to Golgotha and died in our place. And He did it all without caring one little lick about what others thought of Him. His aim was to impress God, not man, and He succeeded. He triumphed. And so do we.
Jesus carried the full weight of God’s Law so that you and I could be filled with His strength, His righteousness, His goodness. He bore the burden of sin so that we might receive the yoke of forgiveness. He suffered the weight of death so that we could be given the yoke of life eternal.
The Church is called to be this place of rest, this place where the cares and burdens of the world can be removed, laid down for a bit and forgotten. It is a place where we learn from Jesus, that He is gentle and lowly in heart, that with Him we have rest for our weary souls.
In here we are reminded of all that Jesus has done to relieve that burden of the Law from us, and so we are free to love God without terror, to love and serve each other, to care less about what others might think and rejoice more in what God thinks.