Rest For Your Soul

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

July 9, 2023

I can’t begin to tell you the outpouring of Love I have received since it was announced that I was preaching today!  Thank you for loving me so well and thank you to Jim Somerville for trusting me to preach today while he is away at the Baptist World Alliance meeting in Norway.  Yesterday, I even got a message that Alison Lance, one of our students, made her family come home early from vacation so she could be at church today….church – when a teenager wants to be here instead of the beach – you are doing something right!  So thank you for being here and for allowing me to share what God has laid on my heart.

There’s a saying in the South I’m guessing many of you are familiar with…“That’s the pot calling the kettle black”.  Do you remember that one… when one person criticizes someone for a fault they also have.  Like when someone is always late to everything, but they are the first to remind everyone about a meeting and say “Don’t be late”…that’s the pot calling the kettle black.  I have to confess that’s a bit how I felt when I began reading the scriptures passages this week and read in Matthew’s gospel that Jesus was calling us to find rest for our souls.  I found myself saying, “Of all people to preach on rest, Lord …am I really the one you want?  Me…who frequently answers emails late at night and doesn’t know how to say no…. You want me to preach on Finding Rest for the soul?!”  It’s a little like the pot calling the kettle black if I stand up here and tell you how to find this perfect rest and peace, when I struggle to do the same.    

            I can identify with Paul words… he knew the right thing to do, but he didn’t do it.  He knew what to stay away from, and yet that was the very thing he often did.  As I hear that in light of Matthew’s gospel, I find myself saying, yep…me too, Paul…I need to rest but I don’t do it.  I don’t need to schedule so many things that clutter a calendar, but I do.  Yet, thankfully, both scriptures come back to the same point…. the only real answer is Jesus.  Perhaps the Lord knew this was exactly what I needed to focus on in my life these past few weeks.   So I come today, to step on my own toes, to share what I’m still learning along the way and to invite you to join me as we dive into this story in pursuit of Rest. 

             Imagine the scene with me: Jesus has just finished teaching his disciples.  They have gone through many towns and cities, preaching the Kingdom of heaven is here, healing the sick, and causing quite a stir.  Peter has not yet named Christ as the Messiah and people are beginning to take note of Jesus in ways that perhaps they hadn’t before.  John the Baptist, who is sitting in prison, sends his followers to Jesus to ask if He is the one to come or if they should wait for another.  “Go and tell John what you observe – the blind see, the lame walk, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news” Jesus says.    The crowds gathered must have leaned in a bit closer, both curious, criticizing, and yet longing/needing to hear that good news.  Jesus went on correct their thinking, to curse cities that persisted in evil, and then to thank the Father for giving him true wisdom.  It was then, I imagine his eyes pleaded with the people, his voice fell a little softer, his arms opened to those standing there, and he said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 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. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Can you imagine it?  I wonder how many scoffed and said, yeah okay – but let me go home and finish dinner because the biscuits are burning and the men will be coming in off their boats.  How many said – that’s great…can you heal me next so I can get back to work and help provide for my family?  Or just maybe…there were some that dropped their plows, dusted their aprons, and sat down to listen a little more.  I wonder if that’s the moment some of them began hear and experience Jesus in a different way.  For an oppressed society under Roman rule, they were weary and taxed.  Their burdens were great and surviving was more important than thriving.  I wonder if this was the moment, some accepted a way that was radically different and yet profoundly simple…a way that led to true rest – not for their feet, but for their soul.

Interestingly, Jesus says the way to find rest for your soul means taking upon you a yoke.  Being yoked is to literally be bound together – to be united, linked, or chained to a common purpose. (Sidenote: It is also where we get the word Yoga…which makes since as it is a physical practice to help people meditate and relax…to release the restrictions and find peace.)

I witnessed a type of yoke a couple weeks ago at Bible School, I noticed two young girls walking down the hallways one day as they were leaving.  They had tied their shoelaces together and were attempting walk down the hall. They wanted to be so close and found such joy being with the other…the only problem was – they both tied the lace from their left shoes.  I’m sure they thought – “ohh, I’ll use my left shoe” and the other one said “Me too – I’ll use my left shoe”…thinking they were on the same page…or foot…but when they started walking down the hallway – one could walk fine, while the other one kept fumbling with her right foot catching the laces between them each time and tripping them both up.  They had the tools, they had the right idea, but the way they yoked themselves together did not lead them to find rest and harmony, but caused them to work harder and endure more missteps than before!  Comical and sweet – yes…productive…not so much!

In the first century agrarian culture of Jesus’ day, they would have understood the full concept of a yoke and known the way you yoke something together matters. 

You may not know there are 3 primary types of yokes used with animals:

  1. a bow yoke – the ones most of us can picture in our minds with two oxen being bound with a wooden collar around their neck or shoulders and a beam between them so that when one pulls or turns, the other will as well.  They are easily adjustable to different animals and the heaviness of their load or burden is lessened because there are two or more working together as a team. 
  2. A head yoke – this fits on the forehead of the beast and secures behind or around the horns.  It typically takes a bit more adjusting and you have to create new ones when the horns grow.  These are also specific to the animal that will wear it as each would be a different size and horn shape but it allowed for each animal to work a bit more independently and had comfort supports under the straps on the head.
  3. Withers yoke – this type would go in-front of an animal’s withers or shoulder blades and were mostly used on zebu cattle that had a large hump or wither at the shoulder making the traditional bow yoke harder to use. 

Now, I could stop there and we could talk of how being yoked was an oppressive system where animals would toil and labor, subservient to their master and yet necessary to complete a task. We could make analogies about how being yoked to Jesus is wonderful and to have him pulling alongside you would surely lessen the burden…but that’s not what the scripture says.  Jesus said His yoke was easy…not that he would be yoked with us.  Did you catch that…he’s asking us to put on the yoke he is Giving…we have to wear it…we have to pick up our cross and follow him.  It’s not that he is taking ½ our troubles away, but it’s that his yoke is easier.  He is still the master – not the other workhorse.  And about that easy yoke…that word EASY in Greek is actually translated as good, helpful, kind or profitable….not just easy.  The yoke Jesus gives us is one that will be good and helpful.  He is providing the tool but he doesn’t take away the work we are called to do – His yoke helps us to do the work better, with better outcomes – thus it’s easier. 

I must admit that’s a switch for me…but it also leads me to think, perhaps he was talking about another type of yoke – one  that people often carried and not animals.  It is called a milkmaid’s yoke or carrying pole.  These are the long single poles that fit over the shoulder of men or women as they would carry pales water, milk, produce, any kind of thing over long distances.  If it was one person carrying the yoke, they would balance the pole over their shoulders with an equal amount of weight in the buckets on both ends.  If two people worked together, they would each take one end of the pole and the weight (or burden) would hang from the middle. 

The yoke of Jesus isn’t meant to confine us like a beast of burden, but perhaps was to say – carry THIS pole where the weight will be evenly distributed, where you won’t feel lopsided or unbalanced.  Come to me and let me rest my yoke on your shoulders so that you aren’t chained with a bow, or your head isn’t straining, or your back withers humped over…come and let me give you a good yoke, a yoke that is kind to you, so that we can walk and talk together as we get the job done. 

And there is one distinct benefit to the milkmaid yoke – It allowed people to go through narrow passages.  If the pole was too wide, you could turn sideways and navigate through small entrances without unloading everything or re-routing to find a larger pass.  Seems to me, Jesus had previously said in Matthew 7, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”  Perhaps the yoke of Jesus allows people to follow the narrow road easier. Perhaps the lighter load means quicker steps on a path to fullness of life. 

I like to think of it like a small child learning to bake.  You remember those days when children wanted to make brownies but they were too small to see over the countertop.  They were so small and really couldn’t do it on their own but that didn’t stop the defiant “I do it by myself” that usually accompanied the attempt!  Now parents, we had a choice at that moment…we could say fine – you do it and watch them self destruct…or we could step back, offer the right tools at the right time, and see them make progress as they worked through each step.  In the end, they were so proud of the final outcome and we would eat every bite…regardless if tasted good or bad…and celebrate that accomplishment.  That is how I think God works with us.  In our defiance thinking we can do it all, we lift things too heavy, we take on too much, we try to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders – but Jesus is there saying – here’s a better tool, try this instead, let me help you hold that bowl while you work to scrape it out.  You do it, but I’m here to help provide what you need along the way.  And in the end, he is celebrating every step with us – good or bad – and saying “Well Done”!

Theres a second part to this passage I find interesting.  Amid this talk of work and yokes and burden….Jesus mentions rest twice…and not just propping your feet up at the end of a long day, but rest for your soul.  We live in such a hurried, frantic state that is often characterized by stress and anxiety – and yet Jesus is calling us to find rest that goes much deeper than just relieving the tiredness or getting enough sleep at night.  When your soul is burdened, rest looks different.  Rest can be finally catching a deep breath, a breakthrough, a peace that passes all understanding.  When your soul finds rest, it isn’t about finishing a laundry list of chores and commitments, it’s deeper – less about relief and more about release. 

            At the beginning of this year, I chose a word that I wanted to make a focal point in my life for 2023…Time!  I wanted to make time, to carve out time, to create time, to give time, to find time, and to enjoy time.  I believe that part of understanding Rest is understanding Time.  Jesus often retreated with his disciples to find rest…in a garden, a room, the other side of the lake.  He rested as he savored meals, as he took time to rest with the Father in prayer.  Resting didn’t eliminate the work, it didn’t lessen His tasks, but it helped to restore His soul.   If Jesus could take time to rest when the world was out to crucify Him, surely I can find time to rest today. 

            And I believe that rest may look different for each of us.  This past week, the formation staff took a day and went to Barnes and Nobles for a couple hours and chose a book that we wanted to read – just for fun, to renew us and provide rest from our routines!  Rest for your soul may be time for conversations around the dinner table when everyone is back home.  It may be bedtime prayers and time to tuck in children when you know where they are and they are safe.  Rest may be whispering prayers of thanksgiving as you soak in the sun and take time to listen to the waves crashing on the shoreline that God created.  Rest yesterday for me was a few moments to listen to the thunder, smell the rain, feel the drops as they splattered down.  It may be as simple as sitting by the bedside of a loved one savoring every minute you have together.  Our tasks don’t disappear, but our soul finds respite amid the rush.

Ruth Haley Barton has a new book out called Embracing Rhythms of Work and Rest where she explores the idea of Sabbath and rest.  Hear these words and how she describes the link between rest and time.

There have to be times in your life when you move slow,

Times when you walk rather than run, settling into each step…

There have to be times when you stop and gaze admiringly at loved ones,

marveling that they have been given to you for this life…

Times when hugs linger and kisses are real,

When food and drink are savored with gratitude and humility rather than gulped down on your way to something else.

There have to be times when you read for the sheer pleasure of it, marveling at

the beauty of the words and the endless creativity in putting them together…

Times when you settle into the comforts of home and become human once again.

There have to be times when you light a candle and find the tender place inside

you that loves or sorrows or sings and you pray from that place,

Times when you let yourself feel, when you allow the tears to come rather than

blinking them back because you don’t have time to cry.

There have to be times to sink into the soft body of yourself, and love what you

love simply because love itself is a grace…

Times when you sit with gratitude for the good gifts of your life that get lost and

forgotten in the rush of things…

Times to celebrate and play

To roll down hills

To splash in water or make leaf piles

To spread paint of paper or walls or each other.

There have to be times to sit and wait for the fullness of God that replenishes

body, mind, and soul –

If you can even stand to be so full.

There has to be time for the fullness of time

or time is meaningless.

The wisdom of Jesus is that he didn’t tell us to quit doing things…he told us to do things while we remain connected to Him.  He began by saying “Come to me”.  It all starts with our willingness to go towards the Savior.  It’s not always easy, the path is not wide, but the result is peace within the arms of God now…and forever!  Friends, I don’t have this all figured out…it’s still a work in progress!– but I invite you to join me on the journey…Jesus is offering a yoke that is easy, a burden that is light, and rest for your soul.  Will you say yes? 

Let’s pray: Father – in a world where the activities and schedules and calendars abound, may we find time to rest our souls.  It is easy to become weary but we pray that when the journey seems long and hard, we may find your companionship to be most meaningful.  Grant us now your wisdom and your yolk, a light burden, and time to rest in your love.  In the name of Jesus, Amen.