Last week, we welcomed 6 new members into our church community, making a total of 8 new people so far this year. This is the total amount of new members we had in 2017, and so, as you may guess, I was very excited by the realization that we are doing so well. It’s exciting to see that our numbers are reflecting the spirit’s work here in Walnut!
Much of our work in the church is focused – not on our blessings – but on our deficits. We never have enough money, enough musicians, enough volunteers, enough time, enough members or attendees… We focus on our challenges and our hardships, not on the gifts we’ve been given. (What are you grateful for?)
But, in our scripture lesson today from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus encourages us to look at what we HAVE, rather than what we lack; to approach our faith as an infant, a child, as one who sees the world with new eyes.
Our scripture lesson today from the gospel of Matthew (chapter 11:25-30) is a transitional text – a text that explains one point and leads to another… Alone, it is confusing and but in the context of the book of Matthew it illuminates some of the main points of Jesus’ philosophy:
1. The truth revealed in children of the faith
2. Jesus’ own role as emissary for God
3. The difference between the yoke of Pharisaic legalism and the yoke of Christ.
Our text begins with Jesus giving thanks to God for revealing the truth – not to those who are adults (wise and intelligent) but babies in the faith… those who’ve just begun their learning, those who are new and can see with new eyes. Preceding our text Jesus was teaching, and in every lesson (his admiration for John the Baptist, his explanation of John’s role in revealing the gospel, the cries of woe for unrepentant cities like Chorazin and Bethsaida and Caperanum) he points out those who have had opportunities and power and every chance to understand the message of God and have squandered those opportunities away and those who have used their opportunities to understand the Kingdom of God. And he thanks God, for revealing the truth, not to the powerful and educated and those on the highest rung of the social ladder, but to infants.
This reference to infants is just that – an illusion to those who are new to the faith, new to the kind of religion Jesus was describing, not one defined by adherence to the rules, but adherence to the law of Love.
But I have found that “truth” can also be seen in the eyes, in the perspective of our children. In all of our children, we see the truth of God’s creation – that everything God has created is good and pure and holy and faithful… and if we adults aspire to be more Godly, we need to aspire to be more like THEM. Through their eyes, in their perspectives, in their opinions, beliefs and values, we learn what God intends for us.
This is the lesson Jesus teaches the disciples as he gathered a child from the midst of the learned men, the students and disciples, and explained why a CHILD is an example of faith we should all adhere to: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” (Mark 9:37)
Jesus chose a child – a non-person, free of titles and status – to be his emissary. An emissary was common understood to be like the one who sent him, and when one receives an emissary, he receives the one that emissary represents. To receive a child as a representative of Jesus – this is shocking! This example treats the child, who was socially invisible at the time of Jesus, as the stand-in for Jesus – a stand-in for GOD! This elevates the status of all those who were socially inferior. In this act, and in all of his talk of the Kingdom, Jesus overturns the usual perceptions of greatness and honor by lifting the lowly and putting low those who are exalted.
And then Jesus solidifies HIS OWN role in verse 27 of our text:
27All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
And then, Jesus explains why we should listen to him, why his way is better, what we can gain by following Jesus with a childlike faith:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.”
What is a Yoke? It is a tool for guiding, for directing, a way to get the animal to do what you want… a leadership tool.
To an agrarian society – a community that is centered around farming and agriculture – this term and this idea of a YOKE would have been recognizable. Everyone would know not only the word but also the connotation… Jesus, when speaking with the people, used the things around him, familiar things, to describe the divine. So if he were speaking to us in our present time, he would talk about the kingdom of God using illustrations from freeway driving, or common pigeons, or a smart phone.
What kind of yoke was offered to the people by the Judaism practiced by the Pharisees? After our text, in Matthew chapter 12, the disciples and Jesus enter a field on the Sabbath and begin to pluck some corn. The Pharisees scolded them saying “We don’t do it that way.”
And then they walked on, and they encountered a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees asked Jesus if he would heal this man on the Sabbath and Jesus told them “Of course l would…”Actually, he said, “What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the Sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? How much then is a man better than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath days.”
This religion practiced by the Pharisees was a religion of rules and the adherence to those rules was mandatory, no matter what. And according to Jesus, this yoke was guiding the people away from God, focusing the people on the rules themselves and not on the spirit of those practices.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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.”
All of us carry enormous burdens in our lives, and we all know that sometimes those burdens are a lot heavier than at other times. This is the primary invitation of life: Jesus asks us to come to him. “l will give you rest.” What a wonderful offer, one that we all need, even today. Rest, for our bodies, Rest for our minds, Rest for our souls…
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” Jesus says. The Pharisees and teachers of the law were trying to impose their own religious burdens. Jesus’ yoke was entirely different; it was a yoke guiding us to the law of love. lt is as if Jesus is saying: “Take my teachings, take my life, take my spirit, take my way of life and learn from me.. . in this there is an implied contrast between the yoke of Jesus and the yoke of the Pharisees.
What is Jesus’ yoke?
To love God and love neighbor. To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself. To be merciful, loving and kind.
Today, as we celebrate the gifts of God in our lives, may we remember that we all are precious in God’s sight. And no matter our circumstances, Jesus offers us mercy, compassion, freedom and love. No matter who we are, we are all children of God, yoked in the faith of Christ. May we too listen and hear the words of Jesus, and in them understand the message of love and mercy offered to us all.
Image: “Marian Garden” by James Janknegt