Sermon for Pentecost VII

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2005

“I Will Give You Rest”
Matthew 11:25-30

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
229 years of independence; 229 years of freedom. Tomorrow, Independence Day, people all over this country will celebrate 229 years of “certain unalienable Rights” such as “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” We will celebrate 229 years of the freedom to have a government “deriving [its] just Powers from the Consent of the Governed.” But July 4th represents more than just what was written in The Declaration of Independence. Tomorrow is a reminder of the greatness of this country: as a place where the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free are welcomed; and as a place that symbolizes freedom for the many people living and dying under oppressive governments. There are probably many other things that go along with being a citizen of this country, but the one word that presents itself as a summary of this country’s greatness is “freedom.”

And still, 229 years of the American dream have not yet been able to give people freedom from their burdens. When people come to the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” are they suddenly free of the burden to support their families? Does the burden of taxation (even with representation) suddenly cease? How about the burdens of being good wives, or husbands, or children? The burden of upholding laws with which we don’t necessarily agree? Or the burden of being good stewards of an earth that has finite resources? Of course not; one person cannot have unlimited freedom without interfering with someone else’s freedom. The burdens that go along with living life, retaining liberty, and pursuing happiness are considerable, even in this free country. And those burdens can seem overwhelming and impossible to bear. The only thing that can relieve humans of the weight of so much responsibility is death. What is suicide if not an attempt to be free of the anxieties of living? In this sense, death is the only decisive freedom, since dead people no longer have to deal with all of the burdens, not just of living in this country, but of living life.

There is another burden that is not removed by virtue of being a citizen of the United States, nor is it removed even when we die. That is the burden of living under the Law of God. Some people think that because this nation guarantees free exercise of religion, they are ultimately free to worship the gods that make their hearts flutter and that seem to soothe their troubled consciences. But whether they, or we, recognize it, the freedom that this country grants to choose which religion to practice (or not practice) does not relieve us of the burden to uphold the Law of the one true God, Yahweh. That Law supercedes all other laws; it overrules all other rules. Whatever else “Nature’s God” has bestowed upon His creation, He has bestowed the obligation of keeping His laws, all of them. As St. James reminds us, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). In the unrelenting and unyielding light cast by the Law of God on all people, we see that the freedom granted by governments and constitutions is worthless if not accompanied by freedom from the purity and perfection demanded by a pure and perfect God.

It is not as if only Christians feel the weight of that burden. The need to justify ourselves before other people is a symptom of the need to justify ourselves before whatever ultimate Authority might be out there. Why is it that people who are confronted with the claim that they must be holy in order to be pleasing to God use some form of the rebuttal, “But I’m a good person”? If no God existed, or at least no objective standard put into place by the architect of the universe, why would it matter if we were “good” or not, (that is, if “goodness” could even be defined!)? We humans are always trying to justify our existence; trying to prove that we have some reason for being here. That old question about the “meaning of life” is an attempt to figure out the point of all the working and striving and worrying that we do in this life.

And so the burden extends even to our very existence. Different people have different ways of finding relief from the loads they carry. We all have different ways of relaxing, of resting. The typical narcotics are all readily available: sex, drugs, alcohol. All of those can make you forget your burdens temporarily. For some people it’s work, for some people it’s getting off work! For some it’s family, for some it’s spending time away from family. Duty, patriotism, politics; travel, television, movies. The options for trying to find rest for our tired bodies and souls are endless. Even church is, for some people, their resting place. It’s a comfortable place, with predictable people and events, and, like any other support group, it’s a place where understanding is sought.

But the exhaustion level stays the same. Even though we can keep our bodies healthy and keep our energy up, we are not just flesh! Our minds whirl with bills, children, spouses, work, mistakes we’ve made, guilt we can’t get rid of. And then there’s that part of us on which we can’t quite put a finger. Something restless; maybe we call it soul, maybe we call it spirit, maybe we call it our “consciousness.” We’ve got unfulfilled dreams, unrealized longings, unaccomplished goals. We’ve got marriages that have ended, family members who have died, companies that downsize, and countries at war. Raise your hand if you think that’s how things should be. And it is tiring to keep on going. Just take a minute to think about the days, weeks, months, and years stretching out ahead of you and think about filling all that time.

In the midst of all the things that make for restlessness, Jesus weeps for His created people, no less than He wept over Jerusalem: “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (Luke 19:42). God our Savior wishes all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:3-4). He calls out to every person within the sound of His voice: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). But for so many today, like those over whom He wept during His earthly life, the things that make for peace, for wholeness, for rest, are hidden from their eyes.

And what about you? Do you know how to take Christ’s yoke upon yourself? Have you given up all the things that weigh heavy upon your heart and have you been able to stop worrying about all the burdens in your life? Or does your sin hang heavy around your neck, like a yoke that drives you into temptation against your will? Do you come to Him? No, it is clear that we do not give up our burdens willingly. The solution must come from outside us. Jesus says, “[N]o 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” (Matthew 11:27). No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him (John 6:44); and it is the Spirit who gives life (6:63). This Trinitarian work of saving humans weighed down under the burden of unkept laws and continual sin and guilt is not something that can be recognized by human reason or perception. How tightly we hold onto our burdens, so that they have to be taken forcibly from us! It is only when we are so beaten down and crushed under the heaviness of all the things we can’t leave behind that we cry out in desperation for someone to take the burden from our backs.

It is at that point; it is in that desperation that approaches despair—indeed, it is despair of our own power to bear up under our burdens—that we look for someone to bear our burdens for us. The things that make for peace are hidden to our sin-clouded eyes! The things that make for rest are beyond our grasp. Only death can free us.

Little children, it is not, however, your death that frees you. Even your physical death cannot remove the burden of God’s Law from your backs. But there is a death that has that power. It is the death of the only One who is able to bear on His back the burden of the sin of the world. Only the unblemished sacrificial Lamb of God can take your burdens, your yokes, upon Himself and bear them out into the wilderness of death (Leviticus 16). He died outside the city, forsaken by men and God, and He alone bore the burden of your sin in His flesh. What god is like the Lord, who is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit (Psalm 34:18)? “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides [our God], who acts for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4). Jesus’ death frees you, and His Resurrection is the proof.

But your burdens still seem very real, and you are tempted to make Jesus’ work into something purely spiritual, with no consequences for your lives in the here and now. What about school, work, parents, children, bills, rent, worries, burdens, that still remain? Is Jesus a man who promises but does not deliver? Or are we forced to spiritualize and allegorize to make His words relevant today? It is true that our new life is hidden, but that does not mean it is not real. The gift of God that is faith, new eyes to see beyond the wasteland of burdens and loads, is the only means by which we can see what is hidden from the eyes of the world. Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (Matthew 11:25). Because, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). And so, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:4-7).

Are you weary, heavy-laden with the burdens of your life? Are you restless under the weight of your sin? Jesus says to you, “Come to me…and I will give you rest” (11:28). Here, now, at this Table. Take this yoke of my rest-giving death and resurrection. It is easy to wear, and my burden is light. Come in and rest and be strengthened; eat and drink my Body and Blood, given and shed for the relief of burdensome sin and guilt. Come often! Come always! When life is too much for your small shoulders, when death looms large, come and find rest for your souls.”

The Church is a place where people in similar circumstances gather to seek rest. But it is no support group for “woe-is-me” commiseration! It is the place where Jesus Christ meets you to hand-deliver forgiveness and rest for your souls. It is here that we realize that even though our burdens will continue—because sin continues—they can no longer separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 8:39). You do not need to justify your existence! Jesus has justified you before God.

It is by faith we see that His burden is no burden at all, but freedom and reconciliation with God, leaving us free to serve those around us. By faith we see Him who is hidden in simple bread and wine, and in the words from the mouths of other human beings. By faith we look to the completion of our rest: for “‘blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors for their deeds follow them’” (Revelation 14:13). Blessed indeed are you on whom the Lord has had mercy; you will have your rest.

Come, then, to the Table and see: see the One who is humble and lowly, riding on a donkey, hanging on a cross, giving Himself for you. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he” (Zechariah 9:9). From His side was opened a fountain for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem—you, His dear children—to cleanse you from sin and uncleanness (Zechariah 13:1). Blessed be our God, who takes our burdens on Himself, and gives us His yoke of true freedom! “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 136:1). Amen.

The peace of God in Jesus Christ, beyond our understanding, will keep you free to live life as a forgiven sinner, until Jesus returns and you live simply as forgiven. Amen.

— [Timotheos], 6/30/05

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