REST FOR YOUR SOUL

rest

Our own expectations are a burden to us. Our demand for Jesus to behave the way we want him to turns our spiritual life into a wearying struggle. There are other things that wear us out, also: our own goals and ambitions for this life, our attempts to control circumstances and relationships, our attempt to hold onto things that we know are sinful and wrong. Jesus says, “Drop all of that! Take on me, and me alone, and you will find rest and ease for your souls.” This is not a word of judgment, but of grace.

 

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Matthew #37 . Matthew 11:7-30

Last time we considered how Jesus failed to meet the (quite reasonable) expectations of John the Baptist. Jesus responded essentially by saying, “Look back to the Bible and trust what it says. You are blessed when you aren’t upset because I don’t act like you expect me to.”

We pick up this time as John’s disciples are leaving to give him the message. Jesus continues his thoughts by talking to those who are left about John.

John has been overshadowed in history by Jesus, but during his life, and for an entire generation during after his death, John the Baptist was a very influential figure. Many of his followers did not make the transition to following Jesus, and instead, they formed a powerful sub-segment of Judaism until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD.

Jesus clearly acknowledges John’s greatness. He explains John’s place in the history of God’s people: he is a prophet and more than that, he was the one predicted by Isaiah who would come before the Messiah and announce him to the world. In fact, Jesus calls him the greatest man alive. Then Jesus adds two interesting thoughts. First, he says that in spite of John’s greatness, “the least in the kingdom of God” is greater than him. This is puzzling, and there are several possible things that Jesus may have meant. It could be that what Jesus means is that John represents the old covenant, the one which the people of Israel never could keep, and by which they could never be reconciled to God. In this scenario then, John was the greatest man who could live by the old covenant, but the righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ is a completely different and greater righteousness. The most pathetic one who is justified by faith in Jesus Christ is closer to God than even the most diligent and self-denying law keeper of the old covenant.

Another possibility is that Jesus means that those who have died and gone on to glory are greater than even the greatest living man. This fits somewhat with what we learned last time, where John was anxious about his present circumstance. Jesus might be saying, “John’s greatness in this life is nothing compared to what he will experience once he dies in faith and fully enters the kingdom of heaven. He is concerned about temporary salvation, but the eternal salvation I offer is so much greater.”

The second strange thought that Jesus shares is this:

12 From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent have been seizing it by force. 13 For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John; 14 if you’re willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who is to come.

I think what Jesus is referring to here is the widespread belief, perhaps also held by John the Baptist, that the Messiah would bring physical and political deliverance from foreign oppressors. In fact the Jewish people (and possibly John as well) were expecting a violent Messiah. This may sound shocking to us; we know what actually happened, what Jesus actually did and taught. But at the time Jesus walked the earth, the Jewish people sincerely believed that the Messiah would arrive to do violence to their enemies. Jesus is not affirming this. In a continuation of what he said to John, he is explaining that he will not meet those expectations. The idea that the Messiah would preach love, and seek to reconcile all human beings to God (even Romans and foreign soldiers), was completely unique and unexpected to the people at the time.

In fact, for most of the rest of Chapter 11 Jesus is pointing out that he is not meeting expectations. The people criticized John for overt, severe self-discipline; then they turned around and denounced Jesus for not showing overt, severe self-discipline. Both C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton have observed this continuing habit of criticizing Jesus and Christianity for opposite things. One the one hand, people say that our faith is merely wish-fulfillment and pie-in-the-sky; we are too optimistic. On the other hand, Christians are frequently criticized for the doctrine of original sin and the future of the world; we are too pessimistic.

When Jesus speaks to the towns ins verses 21-25, he is continuing with this same theme. The towns he mentions are all in the area of Galilee, where he has been ministering. His point is that he has done amazing miracles, that he has fulfilled many prophecies about the Messiah, and yet the people in these towns have not accepted him. Most likely, the reason they did not was because he did not behave the way they expected the Messiah to behave.

It’s hard to believe that the culture at the time thought the Messiah would be a violent man of war. But what are the common strange expectations of our time?

Our culture believes that God asks nothing from us, and holds us to no personal moral standard. We expect to do as we please, and then be welcomed into heaven when the time comes. To the extent that our culture believes in Jesus at all, it believes that Jesus died to show us love, and that now we should continue our lives unchanged and unaffected by that sacrifice. In fact, Jesus himself calls us to die to ourselves and surrender to Him and His purposes; we’ve seen that already in the book of Matthew. Just as the people at the time ignored what the Scripture actually said about the Messiah, so also our culture ignores what the Bible actually says about Jesus.

Our culture believes that Jesus preaches a kind of universal religion, no different from anything else in the world, when in fact, Jesus’ own words proclaim that he is unique, and that our entire future hinges on our response to him, and him alone. Of course, there are elements of truth in other religions. But Jesus makes it clear that he himself is the ultimate revelation of truth, and that our choice to either receive him or reject him is of eternal consequence.

When we hear the words of the Bible, do we receive them and surrender to them, or do we, like the towns in Galilee, reject the truth because it does not conform to our expectations?

Jesus closes this discourse with one of my favorite passages in the Bible:

“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matt 11:28-30, HCSB)

Our own expectations are a burden to us. Our demand for Jesus to behave the way we want him to turns our spiritual life into a wearying struggle. There are other things that wear us out, also: our own goals and ambitions for this life, our attempts to control circumstances and relationships, our attempt to hold onto things that we know are sinful and wrong. Jesus says, “Drop all of that! Take on me, and me alone, and you will find rest and ease for your souls.” This is not a word of judgment, but of grace.

Just to make sure we have the picture correct, let me explain what Jesus meant by “yoke.” A yoke was a kind of farm or work implement. It was a piece of wood that was somewhat curved and could fit over the necks of animals or human beings. If the yoke was for a human, the ends might attach to a harness, which then could be attached to a plow or a cart. The man with the yoke across his shoulders could then use the leverage of the yoke to pull the plow or the cart. Alternatively, a load could be hung from each end of the yoke, balanced across the shoulders of the man. Picture a man with a bar across his shoulders, and a bucket hanging from each end of the bar, and you get the idea. There were also yokes made for animals. Some of them were double-yokes in which, say, two oxen could be fastened, and using the yoke, their strength could be combined to pull a load.

I think there are two things we can get from this image, both of them appropriate. The first is the straightforward meaning of Jesus’ words, which is that the burden or work involved in trusting him is light, and even restful for the soul. Picture a yoke with no weight or harness attached to it. The point is, when we give up our own expectations or demands, and surrender to Jesus, and to living life his way, it is restful and healing for our souls.

The second image is that of the two oxen pulling together. Jesus might be saying: “Hitch yourself to me, and let me do the pulling. When I do the work alongside you, you will find it easy and restful.” The idea is that we trust Jesus to do what needs to be done, we let his strength take the weight of the burdens that we face.

I like to picture it like this. Imagine that you are wearing a large, hiker’s backpack. The pack is absolutely stuffed with equipment and all sorts of things that you might reasonably think you need for the journey. It weighs 60 pounds or more. Now you meet Jesus standing by the trail. He is holding a very small, comfortable -looking pack. As he hands it to you, you feel that it is maybe 5 pounds. There is no way it could hold anything more than perhaps food for your next meal.

Now, you are carrying so much weight and bulk that when you try to add that 5 pound pack from Jesus, you find it is considerably harder than before. Jesus laughs at you. “No, silly! Get rid of your big old pack and carry only my pack.” The key of course, is to trust that if we take on only the 5 pound pack, Jesus will be with us to give us the other things we need, when we need them.

You see, I think so many Christians do not find following Jesus to be restful. The reason is, they try to follow Jesus, and at the same time, try to maintain their own control, their own goals, ambitions and expectations. This is not the rest that Jesus offers. The rest and peace come when we give up our own burdens and take his yoke, and only his yoke, upon ourselves. The way to lightness and ease for our souls is to take the yoke of Jesus on ourselves, leaving our own “yoke” behind.

I invite you to do that right now. There is no time like the present. Are there expectations that you have of this life, or of Jesus, expectations that the Holy Spirit is now calling you to release? Are you holding onto the weight of controlling your own life? Is it possible that your own ambitions and plans are a burden to you? Is there some way in which you are insisting that you get what you want, or that you must get it in your way?

These are all heavy burdens that Jesus is calling you to release. In exchange, he offers you just one light, ease-filled, restful burden: to trust him, and to let him be in control. Let him pull the weight, while you relax and trust him.

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