Disciples Take Time to Rest

Rebecca Sheridan
Sunday, July 9, 2023
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

    Growing up, my best friend was consistently a foot taller than I was.  She still is, in fact, over six feet tall.  I remember once (in the fifth grade I think) I was excited because I made it onto the first riser for the class picture due to a growth spurt that didn’t last very long – my friend was always on the top riser.  Despite our height difference, we got along great – I played point guard on the basketball team while she of course played center.  On our softball team, I was catcher and she was great in the outfield.  But for whatever reason, one field day at school we decided that I would be her partner in the three-legged race.  And as you can imagine, that did not work out too well.  I don’t remember the details other than yelling at each other, falling down more than once, and probably getting close to if not last place. At least our friendship survived the race despite being pretty competitive people, but we learned a lesson – when you’re tied to someone else, you want to have a partner who’s relatively similar in height who can keep the same pace as you.
    The end of our gospel this morning contains familiar, comforting words from Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you with find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”  The image of a yoke would have been a common object in Jesus’ day for people to understand what he is talking about here, but of course, we may not be sure what exactly Jesus means today.  I’m going to pass around a few pictures to give us a clue – the first is of a pair of oxen yoked together.  As you can see, a yoke is this wooden bar that helps keep a pair of oxen working together as they pull a plow, wagon, or something else.  The yoke allows each ox to pull equal weight so that the load they are carrying is not too burdensome for one or the other animal.  Jewish teachers in Jesus’ time used the metaphor of the people Israel being yoked to the Torah, God’s teaching.  It would have made sense to people to think of being yoked similarly to Jesus’ teaching – striving to live in balance with what Jesus says; sharing daily life with the Lord.
    The second image is of two guys (more equal in height, you will note!) running a three-legged race.  Perhaps this metaphor makes more sense to us today, if you can remember being in a three-legged race.  To successfully walk or run strapped to someone else’s leg, you need to not only be a similar height to keep pace, but you also need to be in constant communication with one another about when you are stepping with which leg (left, right, left, right), ideally moving as if you are one person.  Once you get the rhythm and hang of it, it’s actually fun!  What if we thought of Jesus’ call today as an invitation to journey on a three-legged race with Jesus as our partner – imagining first of all that he’s the right size of each one of us, listening to him for direction, leaning on him to carry us if needed, walking in step with him along our life’s journey?  Walking in-step with Jesus rather than on our own lightens our load and gives us rest.  Does it feel freeing to think of being tied to Christ, or restrictive, because we’d rather be out there running on our own two feet?  Sometimes, can we admit it, don’t we want to be left alone, free from any constraints, to do our own thing?
    The only thing that wouldn’t have made sense to the first disciples in Jesus asking them to place his yoke upon them is the juxtaposition of being yoked to him and resting.  Oxen are yoked together to do work, after all – to transport cargo or plow a field.  Of course, Jesus calls the first disciples and us to work for the kingdom of God.  The work he gives us is not always easy, as we have heard the past few weeks in Matthew’s gospel.  The night before he is crucified, Jesus criticizes the disciples for falling asleep and encourages us to keep awake and pay attention for his coming again.  In this summer season, though, it’s important for us to listen to Jesus’ call to rest in him.  Perhaps being yoked to him means he’s going to drag us along to rest with him when we need it, too!  In all four gospels, Jesus takes time with his disciples to get away from the crowds to rest and pray.  As faithful Jews, they observe the sabbath, God’s third commandment, to rest.  Jesus’ call to rest today reminds us that even God after six days of creation rested on the seventh day.  I often wonder why we think we need to work harder than God?  Even when we do work we love, the pressures of our culture to always be “on,” to respond within minutes to phone calls, emails and texts even on vacation, holidays, and weekends, to be seen as heroic for putting in overtime is contrary to God’s command to rest and our physical and spiritual need for rest.  In fact, studies have shown that when children are given two shorter recess breaks rather than one longer one during the school day, they perform better academically.  Adults, too, have better job performance when they take periodic breaks throughout the day.   Rest is actually good for us.  Yes, God in fact does know what he is doing in commanding us to rest!
In this short passage, Jesus is criticizing our human tendency to think we can go it alone, trying to work harder and longer to work things out on our own, rather than relying on him to carry us through and walk alongside us as our champion, teacher, and friend.  So when we think of all the things we can do as a disciple of Jesus, I’m guessing “rest” does not first come to mind, but grounding ourselves in rest and renewal – reading a daily devotional with scripture, taking time for prayer and conversation with God, building in one day of rest per week is definitely essential in learning to walk side-by-side with Jesus in following him.
    In taking time to rest in Jesus, we can reflect on what burdens we are carrying that we can share with him.  Jesus names a few burdens he and his followers are facing in our gospel for today – his cousin John the Baptist has been arrested, which means the threat of the religious and political authorities persecuting them is a real concern.  Jesus observes that if we take on the burden of trying to please people, we will never be happy – they criticize John for fasting, then they criticize Jesus for eating and drinking.  If we make decisions about what we do in life based only on what others think of us, we will never be happy.  Sometimes we pressure ourselves to have all the answers – thinking we can figure everything out by our own intelligence, but Jesus says God has hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and instead have revealed them to infants.  Jesus is ready to share our load, our burdens, whatever they may be, and give us rest.  We can give over our need to be people pleasers, our workaholism, our desire for control, our worry about how we can solve whatever problems we are facing on our own without asking for help, and turn to Jesus to carry those burdens.  And Jesus promises that when we partner with him, yoking ourselves to his teaching, we will find rest for our souls.  Amen.