Sunday July 5th 2020
Pastor Galen Zook
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
This weekend is Independence Day weekend, the time when we commemorate our nation’s Declaration of Independence from Great Britain back in 1776. At the same time, we also celebrate the individual freedoms that we hold so dear here in this great nation of ours, even as we pray and work for all people in our world to be truly free.
Now, while the words “independence” and “freedom” are often used interchangeably, they do speak of different realities. Someone can be free and yet dependent or interdependent on someone else, and someone can be independent without being truly free.
In fact, sometimes, striving to become truly independent could become a form of bondage in and of itself.
Imagine if you tried to live completely independent of anyone else. You would need to grow and harvest your own coffee beans, fetch your own water, grow and harvest your own sugar cane, and feed and milk your own cow every day, and all of that just so you can have your morning cup of coffee!
Dependence — or interdependence — when people or entities are mutually dependent on one another — is not necessarily a bad thing, and in fact it can be rather freeing — depending of course who or what it is that we’re dependent on!
Yoke of Oppression
In the midst of all of this talk of freedom and independence, it’s interesting to note that Jesus (in our Gospel lesson today) invites us to take his “yoke” upon us.
If anything feels antithetical to freedom or independence, it’s wearing a yoke. Yokes were wooden beams placed on the backs of oxen or other animals to enable them to pull together on a load when working in pairs. Yokes were often used as metaphors for slavery or bondage.
In Jeremiah 27, the prophet Jeremiah walked around with a yoke on his shoulders as a dramatic and prophetic action designed to warn the nation of Judah that they would soon be taken captive by the Babylonians.
Sure enough, the people were indeed taken into captivity in Babylon, and from then until the time of Jesus some 600 years later, they were never free again. Various nations would rise up and overtake their oppressors, and though some of their captors gave them more latitude than others, they were never quite free.
And so when Jesus talked of taking his yoke upon them, he was speaking to a people who knew what it was like to be in bondage. In Jesus’s day, the Jewish people in Palestine lived under Roman occupation. Their “King” — King Herod — he was really a puppet king, under the authority of the Roman empire. But they were not a free and independent state.
Now, Roman occupation was one thing. But the crushing burdens placed on them by their own religious leaders was another.
The Yoke of the Pharisees
In Matthew 23, Jesus denounced those religious leaders — the scribes and Pharisees, saying “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matt. 23:4).
There was a fair amount of corruption among the religious leaders of Jesus’s day. Many of the Jewish leaders were in cahoots with the Roman government, and they benefited greatly from keeping the status quo.
But the Pharisees of Jesus’s day were a different story. They were devout Jews who longed for their nation to be free of Roman rule. They wanted the Kingdom of Israel to be restored, and they thought that the way to do that would be to go above and beyond the demands of the Mosaic Law – that law that God had given to the people of Israel during their wanderings in the dessert.
The way they saw it, God was punishing them — that’s why they were living under Roman occupation. And so if they could all just follow all of the rules and go above and beyond what God required, they perhaps God would forgive them, and bring justice on their land. Perhaps God would strike down the Roman empire and they would finally be independent of Rome.
So the Pharisees went around making sure that everyone was following the laws — not just the letter of the law, but above and beyond. They added on man-made rules to God’s laws. Whereas God said simply not to work on the Sabbath day, the Pharisees added a whole bunch of rules to specify exactly what constituted “work.” Whereas God demanded a certain level of cleanliness and purity for the priests entering into the temple, the Pharisees extended those same requirements to every Jewish person in their own home.
The Pharisees thought that maybe, just maybe, if every Jewish person could just perfectly and completely keep the law, then perhaps God would forgive them and free them.
But in their end, in their obsession with becoming free and independent, they placed even heavier burdens on the people than the Roman Empire ever did.
True Freedom: Recognizing our Dependence on Christ
That’s where Jesus comes in, with the talk of his yoke, which he says is “easy,” and his burden, which he says is “light.”
Jesus says, that if we take his yoke upon us, we will find rest for our souls, because he is gentle and humble in heart. Jesus invites all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens to come to come, and promises that if we take his yoke upon us, he will give us rest.
To me, that sounds like freedom! Finding rest for our souls, being able to lay down our heavy burdens — sounds life-giving and restorative.
But notice that according to Jesus, the path to freedom is not through becoming independent, but rather through recognizing our dependence on Him. Becoming free of our heavy burdens means that we’ve given them over to him. Finding rest for our souls means that we have placed ourselves in His care.
Because Jesus knew that there were not enough good works that we could do, not enough laws that we could keep, not enough man-made restrictions that we could add onto the law, to ever earn God’s favor.
But Jesus also knew that God already loves the world, and everyone in it, and that God was waiting to offer grace, and forgiveness to anyone who turns away from their wrong-doing and repents.
Throughout the Gospels Jesus depicted God as a Father, waiting for his son to return home, with outstretched and open arms. Jesus depicted himself as a Good Shepherd, looking for the lost sheep, or as a woman searching for a lost coin.
Rather than waiting for us to get everyone right, to keep the law perfectly even just for one day, God sent demonstrate God’s love for us, and ultimately to give his own life to purchase our freedom.
Following Jesus involves recognizing our dependence on Christ, and receiving the salvation that he offers as the path to true freedom.
All Who Are Weary and Carrying Heavy Burdens
Some of us are walking around with heavy burdens. Some of them have been placed on us by other people. Some of them we’ve placed on ourselves.
Some of us feel that we’re not doing enough, that we’re not good enough, not smart enough. We think we need to just try harder, do more, and then perhaps God will give us what we want.
Others of us refuse to ask others for help — or worse, we refuse to ask for God’s help. We want to do it all on our own, we don’t want to be dependent on anything or anyone, even God.
But in our struggle for independence, we’re placed an even greater burden on ourselves. And whether we realize it or not, in our fierce struggle for independence we may be placing greater burdens on those around us as well.
And so to all of us who desire to be free — truly free — Jesus invites us to come. To bring our heavy burdens, and to place them at the foot of the cross.
Lay down the worries and the cares that we’ve been carrying.
Lay down the feeling that we’re not good enough, smart enough, that we don’t have it all together.
Lay down the feeling that we have to do it all on our own, that we cannot or should not be dependent on anyone for anything.
The invitation is for us to admit that we need God’s help, and perhaps even the help of those around us. To lay our worries and concerns at Jesus’s feet, and to pick up the yoke that Jesus has for us.
Following Jesus doesn’t relieve us of all responsibility. In fact, it may be an invitation into even greater responsibility! When we take Jesus’s yoke upon us, we become co-laborers in God’s Kingdom. There is much work to be done! And yes, following Jesus might even feel like a burden.
But the beauty is that we don’t have to do it alone. Jesus walking right there beside us. He is there to comfort us and to guide us. And we have a community of brothers and sisters in Christ who are walking beside us as well, sharing the load, and looking out for us as well.
This July 4th weekend, as we celebrate our nation’s independence, let us remember our dependence on God, and our interdependence on one another. As we celebrate the freedoms that we have in this great nation, let us rejoice in the ultimate freedom that we have through Christ. And let us point others to Jesus Christ — the only One who can truly set us free.