A Yoke is Still a Yoke

Inspired by Zechariah 9:9-12 and Matthew 11:28-30

The readings for today were tough for me this week, not because they were difficult but because I wanted to preach on all of them! I wanted to write a separate sermon on each of them but alas I only have time for one. I’m probably going to use a snippet from Zechariah but I’m going to focus on the ending of our Matthew passage, surprise, surprise. So, we continue reading through the Gospel of Matthew with this lesson from Jesus, a lesson that ends with another seemingly tender moment from Jesus.

And by way of reminder, we began our journey in this Gospel with Matthew presenting Jesus to his readers as Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus is God with us. And for the rest of his Gospel he shares with us how Jesus is in fact God with us, with story after story, lesson after lesson, miracle after miracle, the pinnacle coming at Jesus death and resurrection. And our Gospel reading for today is yet another example of this.

But before we get to our Matthew passage I want to point out something that really hit me over the head like a 2x4 from our Zechariah reading. To give you some context, Zechariah was addressing a people of faith that were not just being persecuted, but were exiled, physically taken from their homeland. Zechariah shares with them promises of God’s presence and their eventual restoration.

He encourages them to return to the stronghold, to return to their God who has not abandoned them, in spite of how it may have seemed, and then he uses this curious phrase—he calls them prisoners of hope, prisoners of hope. We usually think of hope in a positive light, as something altogether good, altogether wholesome, and I’m not saying it isn’t, but—there are times in our lives when maintaining hope, is so difficult, we begin to question whether it’s even worth it.

Have you ever been there? Odds are, many of you have. It’s not a fun place to be in. We are told all our lives, to be hopeful, it’s one of the foundations of our faith. And yet, carrying it around with you, when live events and incidents are telling you to just give up, to just throw in the towel already, that hope can feel so heavy, so burdensome. And out of guilt or a sense of duty or something else we hold on to it, to the point that we do feel like we’ve become prisoners to it—prisoners of hope. Ok, hold that thought, I know, we are starting off on a bit of downer but we’ll come out of this, I promise. Let’s turn to the ending of our gospel reading now, for some “comfort.”

Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” Now, like the word hope, we usually hear this passage and hear comfort and positivity right? Well, if you don’t want that destroyed then you may want to cover your ears right now. Notice that Jesus doesn’t say I will take your burdens for you, or I will wear your yoke for you. No, Jesus says my yoke is easy and my burden is light, now put it on! Hold up Jesus. Let’s be real about this. Cuz, no matter how you slice it, a yoke is a yoke and a burden is a burden! You couldn’t even have the decency to call it something else Jesus?

No, because Jesus doesn’t beat around the bush, Jesus is not a manipulator, Jesus is an unrepenting truth teller, he’s gonna tell it like it is. And in case you don’t know what a yoke is, there it is, in all its glory. That wooden bar over the oxen’s shoulders is the yoke. That’s how Jesus sees us. Yeah, that looks like a ton of fun right there. Thanks for the comforting image Jesus! Like I said, a yoke is a yoke and burden is a burden no matter how you look at it. I think the imagery gets lost on us because yokes and ploughs just aren’t part of our everyday experience, not in the literal sense anyway. But it would be as if Jesus said, my leash won’t choke and my burden is light. Or, my handcuffs won’t pinch and my burden is light. Well, that’s great Jesus but a leash is still a leash and handcuffs are still handcuffs!

So how can Jesus say this? How can Jesus look us in the eye, with a straight face and say my yoke is easy and my burden is light? For some insight into that I have to share a couple of the many amazing experiences at the Western States Youth Gathering that I had last week with nine of our youth. In an auditorium of 600 plus youth, we did this one activity where the emcee would basically say if you’ve experienced this stay standing, if not sit down. For instance, if she asked, If you are a baseball fan, I’d remain standing and get to see all the my fellow baseball fans standing with me. There were lots of funny questions but there were also a lot of not so funny ones. At one point she asked, if you know someone who has attempted or committed suicide, remain standing.

I was utterly stunned as I looked across the hundreds gathered and saw how many people were standing with me. It was a powerful moment that I don’t think I’ll soon forget. In that moment I felt more than just with those standing, I felt more than just present with them, I felt more than just occupying the same space as them, I felt supported, I felt unified, I felt restored, I felt the burden become lighter. Not gone, but certainly lighter.

And that lightening continued each night as we shared a devotion based on the days experiences each night before bed when we shared more and more of our own experiences and struggles, laughter and tears, joys and deep pains. When we saw just how not alone we really are, just how supported, unified, we really are. And I know I don’t just speak for myself when I say that we experienced restoration, healing, and a lighter load from those nightly conversations.

I think that’s how Jesus is able to look us in the eye and with a straight face say, my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Because he knew he wasn’t leaving us alone. He knew that he was leaving us in good hands, the hands of the Holy Spirit working through the hands of fellow journeyers, fellow travelers, fellow church family, on this crazy trip we call faith.

I don’t what all of your burdens are, I know some of them but I’m sure they only scratch the surface. Whatever they may be, illness, age, loneliness, grudges, hurt feelings, abuse, addiction, mental illness, family troubles, whatever they may be, know this, you are supported, you are united with others in the burden, restoration is all around you, and you do not carry that burden alone—even if that burden is hope, and you are barely able to hold on. Thanks be to God. Amen.