Sunday, 9 July 2017

Come to Jesus to find shalom: a sermon on rest

Sermon preached at Duston URC on 9 July 2017. Text: Matthew 11:16-30. Immediately preceded by listening to a recording of John Bell's hymn "Come to me, come to me, weak and heavy laden".
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. We’ve talked a little about burdens already. We are all carrying burdens in our lives. For some of us these are physical burdens – our health, a disability, the health of someone we love. For some these are emotional burdens – a relationship in turmoil, deep unhappiness or anxiety, worries about the future. For others they are practical burdens – problems about housing, jobs, money. Whatever our particular burdens, Jesus invites us to find rest in him.

My own burdens are often self-inflicted. I was writing this sermon yesterday, after a busy week at work, with a long to-do list, and reflecting on the irony of preaching on rest while feeling busy. So this sermon is directed to myself in the first instance, and I hope might be useful for others too. Now I’ve long been fascinated by the beginning of the 23rd Psalm. It begins: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures”. Note that verb ‘makes’. The psalmist doesn’t say that God invites us to have a quick lie-down, just for a few minutes, if we’re not too busy. God does not invite, God insists.

So this is a verse of great comfort and encouragement, as well as quite a challenge to those of us who live otherwise. But of course it’s unwise to take a single verse from the gospels out of context and construct a whole sermon out of it, not that it’s stopped me or other preachers in the past. Let’s go back to the start of the reading and see what light it can shed on what it means to come to Jesus in our weariness and heavy ladenness.

Image: St Joseph the Worker
This is the continuation of a passage earlier in Matthew chapter 11, where Jesus receives a message from John the Baptist in prison, and then talks to the crowd about John, his message, and the kingdom of God that he pointed the way to. When this passage begins, Jesus is talking about the difference between the way he’s treated and the way John is treated. He’s cross. Whatever prophets do is wrong, it seems. John gets mocked for his asceticism, his fasting and simple clothes; whereas Jesus gets mocked for his incarnational ministry, his eating and drinking with all kinds of people. One has a demon, the other is a glutton.

Jesus’ comparison of the people of his time is to children, and he’s normally very positive about children, so I think we have to think of unruly teenagers on the street corner, or perhaps that stage in a birthday party where too much sugar has been eaten and drunk and the kids go haywire. Not the sort of thing that any children associated with this congregation would do, but you get the drift. Spoiled brats, complaining and criticising whatever they’re offered.

Actually what it reminds me of is Prime Minister’s Questions, with its awful weekly braying, points-scoring and constant negativity. The sort of thing which gives politics, and the country as a whole, a bad name. Now I’m tempted to say that in the face of all this horribleness, Jesus simply gets grumpy and lashes out in response with his exhortations against Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum. Remember that these were the places Jesus knew and where his ministry was centred. Home turf. But the theologian Tom Wright makes a fascinating point – that it could be seen as warning as much as threat – that he was saying, if you continue on your current path of point scoring and petty name calling, then it leads to violence, and worse violence, and ultimately your destruction. There is only one way to peace and full life, and that is the way of non-violence, of acceptance, of sacrifice, that Jesus proclaimed as the kingdom of God. So if we hear the words about “this generation” and wonder how that applies our generation, or rather to generations living today, then it’s this message which comes out clearly.

There’s another part of this early passage which really interests me – the phrase “wisdom is proved right by her deeds”. Now in some ways that might be linked to the idea that Jesus says elsewhere, that ‘by your fruits you will know them’, yet it goes beyond that in a way that it’s important to understanding the end of the passage. That word wisdom is the key to a large body of Jewish literature such as the books of Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, known as the wisdom literature, which has a deeply spiritual but also practical way of talking about ways to God and ways of living. Wisdom, often seen as female, is described in this literature as a mysterious and ethereal being, which brings shalom, which is to say peace but also well-being, wholeness and flourishing. In later Christian writing close parallels have been drawn between Wisdom and the Holy Spirit. In this passage Jesus clearly draws a direct parallel between himself and wisdom and seems to be saying that you can see this wisdom through the deeds that he has performed.

And this distinctive and unique character of Jesus carries on as he thanks God for the way he reveals himself – not through big words and theories, but in everyday ways which can be understood by infants. A few chapters earlier, Jesus said that blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth; and blessed are the poor in heart, for they will see God. And I think this is in a similar vein – the core of his message is not only a simple one, but it’s also one that comes from experience. Live like Jesus, and you become his follower, and will gain the life he promises us – not just in some future existence after death, but right here and now.

Having said that, he presents us with a complex verse that takes a whole host of biblical scholars to unpick, about nobody knowing the Father except the Son, and nobody knowing the Son except the Father. We could have an entire sermon on that verse, but that would be exactly the sort of intellectualism that we’ve just heard spoken against. But I will say that it’s a verse that speaks a lot to me of the Trinity, and a sense from a growing number of writers that the Trinity, the nature of God as three-in-one, is not an abstract philosophical puzzle but is about relationships, about living. At the heart of the Trinity, at the heart of God, at the heart of the universe, is a loving relationship - God knowing God in God’s different aspects. And this verse tells us of God inviting us into that relationship – we know the Son and the Father and the Holy Spirit together as one.

There’s a wonderful Irish writer by the name of John O’Donohue, now dead, who combined spirituality and deep theological depth in his writing. On the theme of the Trinity he wrote some amazing words. He wrote [in Anam Cara]:
The Christian concept of God as Trinity is the most sublime articulation of otherness and intimacy, an eternal interflow of friendship. This perspective discloses the beautiful fulfilment of our immortal longing in the words of Jesus who said, Behold, I call you friends. … In friendship with Jesus, we enter the tender beauty and affection of the Trinity. In the embrace of this eternal friendship, we dare to be free.
And it’s that daring to be free that Jesus presents us with, as we come back to the end of the passage, where he offers us to come to him if we’re weary and carrying heavy burdens. I talked earlier about the implications of that offer, but the way it works it also important.

Jesus asks us to take his yoke upon us, promising that he is gentle and humble, that his yoke is easy and his burden is light, and that he will bring rest for our souls. For one who is asking others to take up a new way of living, he’s presenting it in a calm and reassuring way. Elsewhere he tells people to take up their cross, foresees that they will be persecuted in his name, and so on. But here he is being reassuring.

Now the word yoke is not widely used in today’s urbanised society, but for people of Jesus’ time, it was very familiar. For those who don’t know, it’s the harness used to enable an animal to pull a plough, cart or similar object. In Jesus’ time and the centuries before, it was also a metaphor – being put in a yoke was to be enslaved. To take up the yoke of the Torah, the law, was a positive thing, though as the New Testament writers commented, extremely difficult to get right.

However interpreted, a yoke was a hard thing to take up. So Jesus offering it at all to his followers as a positive metaphor would be a surprise, and to emphasise that it was light an even more striking comment.

But there’s an important aspect to this image. Although some of the yokes of the ancient world were for a single animal, many were for a pair of animals – Jesus is offering to share our loads with us, to take on his tasks, but only with his support all the way. That’s such a powerful image to me. We are not called to labour on Jesus’ behalf, doing his bidding as servants.
Image: aaaComputerforChrist
Instead, we are called to take the yoke alongside him, to work with him in the building of the kingdom of God. We are invited to learn from him, to follow his path, to become his disciples. As he says in John’s gospel, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

And as we learn from Jesus how to be his disciple, to be his friend, we will be supported all the way, as he takes the yoke next to the yoke that we take, and as he ensures that the yoke is no heavier than we can manage, and much lighter than the burdens we carry by ourselves.

Jesus twice promises us rest, and to me that’s not just an offer to stop and sit down, but it’s a promise of the same kind of shalom that comes out from the wisdom tradition. Jesus promises us wholeness, peace, integrity, deep joy in all parts of our lives. Just as the Trinity is about relationship, so shalom is about relationship – it’s about integrating all the parts of our life into one, and making it all shine with God’s love.

So we are invited to take up Jesus’ yoke, to learn and work alongside him, and we are promised rest for our souls. Sounds like an excellent way to spend the summer!

Amen.

1 comment:

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