The Easy Yoke of Christ
Stress in America
The American Psychological
Association conducted a survey to determine the level of stress in
America. They discovered that most Americans are suffering from
moderate to high stress with 44 percent reporting that their level of
stress increased over the past five years. Money, work, and the
economy were the most frequent areas of concern. They reported that
because of their stress they suffered from irritability or anger,
fatigue, lack of energy, anxiety, depression and other physical
aliments. The survey also discovered that most Americans believe that
the biggest barrier to adopting a healthier life was their lack of
willpower, and they believe that they could learn to master their
willpower if they only had more money, energy or self-confidence.
Stress is a normal part of life. We
need some stress just to exist. Not all stress is bad. Without any
stress we would not have enough pressure in our veins for our blood
to flow. But external and internal events can produce an unhealthy
amount of stress, causing a great deal of distress.
The survey indicated that over 70
percent of Americans believe that they could overcome their stress if
they just had enough willpower. That is a tragic figure. Americans
have been deluded into thinking that willpower is the key to their
success. The fall of the first man and the first woman is a product
of our preference toward self reliance. A spirit of arrogance deludes
us into thinking that we possess the capabilities to be masters of
our own destiny. We still attempt to live on our own. We still strive
to find God's approval by performing good religious deeds. We still
assume that we have the skills and expertise to manage our lives. We
still think that we have the emotional fortitude to withstand the
pressures of living.
Given our reluctance to surrender our
pride, we should not be surprised when our level of stress becomes
unmanageable. We are duplicating the very behavior that produces the
stress. We are relying on the very value system that causes stress.
We are locked into a repeating cycle. Jesus offers an alternative. He
says “Come onto me all you who are heavy laden and I will give your
rest...for my yoke is easy.”
Martin Luther, the great reformer of
the 16th Century
says that by these words Jesus turns “the kingdom of God into a
hospital for the invalid.” There is great truth in that comment.
The kingdom of God is for the downtrodden, the weak, the
disadvantaged. Jesus was born in a stable, not a palace. His parents
could only afford the lowest form of a sacrifice. His fatherly mentor
“Joseph” died when he was young. He knew the travails of growing
up in a single parent family. He understood heartache, disappointment
and suffering. So he calls us to come to him to find our relief from
our burdens and our stress.
However we must be careful how we
apply this message. It is indeed therapeutic but it does not heal in
the way that we would prefer. To our 21st century western
ears, Jesus is saying, come to me, I have the jacuzzi full of warm
water, the massage jets are bubbling, and would you like a glass of
wine or a bottle of imported beer? The context in which Matthew has
placed this passage gives us a very different understanding of
Jesus's offer of comfort.
John The Baptist
The saying comes at the tail end of a
discussion about John the Baptist. The cousin of Jesus is languishing
in prison. One day John saw a dove come and rest upon Jesus just as
God had told him in a vision. John therefore assumed that Jesus would
inaugurate the kingdom of God but John does not see the evidence. The
Roman puppet Herod and his adulterous wife Herodian still rule a
portion of Israel. Roman legions still march through streets of
Jerusalem. The wages of hard working Jews were still filling the
coffers of Roman emperors. Jesus had been preaching for over a year
and nothing had changed. John sends his disciples to Jesus. They ask
him “Are you the one or are we to wait for another.”
Jesus does not answer the question.
That is not unusual. Jesus seldom answered anyone's question
directly. Instead, he tells John's disciples to observe what is
happening. The blind receive sight. The lame walk. The lepers are
cured. The deaf hear. The dead are raised. The good news is preached
to those who are poor. John now had to draw his own conclusions.
A few months later Herod had John
beheaded because of a promise he made to his seductive stepdaughter.
How did Jesus comfort John? How did Jesus relieve John's affliction?
He did not physically break the chains that held John captive. He did
not break down the prison doors and release John from his captivity.
John remained in a dungeon hole until he was butchered at the request
of a woman thirsty for power, prestige and prosperity.
Where is the comfort in that story?
Sending The Twelve
We must also take another step back
and consider the events that came before the story of John. It is all
part of one section. Matthew is compiling a set of stories with a
common theme. Each one builds upon the other. You cannot appreciate
one unless you know what has proceeded.
Before Matthew tells us that John is
in prison, he recalls the events of the selection of the Twelve.
These would be the men with whom Jesus would entrust his message.
These would be the designated leaders of the new kingdom. There would
be twelve to represent the twelve tribes of Israel. However, their
selection would not be based upon family heritage, but on a heart
that longs to see the kingdom. These men display a spirit of humility
that would seek to serve not dominate and control.
Jesus calls them to be with him. He
befriends them. He spends time with them. He entrusts them with his
power to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who are
leprosy, drive out demons. But then in the same breath he tells them
that they will be flogged, arrested and persecuted and some may even
lose their lives.
Let me ask you, “Where is the
comfort in that calling? Tell me how that yoke is light.”
Sister Teresa of Avila was a nun who
lived in the 16th century. She had a rather amazing
prayer life. She would see visions and was supposed to have even
levitated. She had an amazing relationship with God. One rainy day
she was traveling from to a distant city. The road was not paved and
her mule was very uncooperative. Several times she had to climb off
her wagon and either help the beast of burden pull the cart through
the mud or persuade it. She was wet muddy and tired when the mule
decided that he had had enough. He stopped and even sat down in the
road. She climbed down once again from her cart and began pulling on
the mule's harness. At that moment God spoke to her, “Sister
Teresa, this is how I treat my friends.” To which she replied, “It
is no wonder then that you have so few.”
The Commands of Christ
Matthew has presented us with two
examples of people who came to Jesus and willingly took on his yoke.
In the estimation of the secular world, their lives were anything but
easy or comforting. The words of Jesus do not get any easier when we
consider another aspect of the yoke that Jesus gives us.
The image of a yoke is often used in
the Hebrew Scriptures to refer to the rule or the dominion of one
nation over another. The people of the conquered land must take on
the yoke of slavery. Jesus is asking us to take on his yoke. He says
it is easy but consider what he is asking us to do. Subjecting
ourselves to his rule requires complete obedience to his commands.
Jesus came to fulfill the law and thereby do away with the ceremonial
sacrifices but he also gives us his own commands. Jesus both negates
and affirms the OT law of God.
He tells us to love those people who
hate us. We are to even endure the physical and verbal assaults from
people. If someone does insult us or hurt us we are to forgive them
We are not to worry about what we
will have for dinner or what we will wear; nor are we to accumulate
any earthly possession and what we do own, we are to sell it and give
it to the poor.
We are confronted with several
challenging questions. In what ways does Jesus comfort us? How does
his word bring comfort in times of distress? How does he lighten the
load of responsibility, duty and obligation?
The most obvious burdens to which
Jesus is referring are the religious obligations we put on ourselves.
We strive for righteousness through works of service and religious
deeds. We try to earn special favors from God by obeying the major
commandments about murder, theft, and adultery. In a crisis we attend
church with greater consistency, hoping that he will hear our
prayers. We speak about the gospel of grace but feverishly strive to
work our way into God's good graces. We struggle to accept the light
yoke of grace.
Coming to Christ not only requires
letting him lift the burden of guilt off our backs but it also
requires accepting the yoke of discipleship. This is the tough one to
really understand because the reality is, the commands of Jesus are
difficult. Anyone who denies that reality or tries to minimize the
demands is distorting his teaching. So how do they become light? How
do they become easy?
Coming to Jesus requires a surrender
to his will and his rule in our lives. As we yield to his reign our
attachment to material possessions is replaced by a desire to invest
in things important to the kingdom. We become generous with our
money. We simply do not worry about how much is in our bank accounts.
Our emotional mood is not controlled by the erratic swings of the
stock market. We do not over spend beyond our budget but build a
savings account for emergencies.
When we lose our job because of
budget-saving staff reductions, we do not panic. We trust that God
has given us certain gifts and abilities that can be used by some
company. We just have to find that one employer who needs us. We can
walk through a period of unemployment because we have built up an
emergency fund through fugal living.
We are told that we have a terminal
illness. The news stuns us. We would like to enjoy our grandchildren.
We would like to see a son or daughter get married. We would still
like to do so many things in life but we come to accept the finality
of our days because we hold onto a hope of resurrection.
In coming to Jesus we put aside the
values, attitudes and perspectives of the secular world. We allow his
teaching to permeate our thoughts. We allow the wisdom of God to
reshape our values and beliefs. However, we do not come to Jesus by
watching TV and movies on DVD, Blu-ray or U-verse. The stories of
desperate housewives and two bachelors and a teenager are laced with
values that contradict the gospel. They may be humorous. They may be
entertaining but they are shaping our thoughts, our perspectives and
even our beliefs. The clothes, hairdos, and make-up look great on
screen but create a dissatisfaction within us over our used apparel
and wrinkled skin.
We will never learn to enjoy the easy
yoke of Christ so long as we try to carry the yoke of the secular