Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"Of Vacations, Yokes, and Eagles"

Text: Matthew 11:28-30

Isaiah 40:28-31

            I don’t know about you, but from time-to-time, I need a word from the Holy Bible which just downright feels good; a word which comforts more than challenges; a word which makes me feel good about myself, and about my relationship with the Almighty. There’s a single-frame Dennis the Menace comic which shows Dennis and his family leaving church.

Much to the obvious embarrassment of Henry and Alice Mitchell, Dennis looks up at the preacher with a smile on his face and says, “Next Sunday, just for fun, could you tell us what we’re doing right.”

            It is true that God’s written word can be a difficult pill to swallow. The words of Jesus often make us squirm and wiggle. It has been said that faithfully preaching the word of God is about afflicting the comfortable. That’s one side of it. The other side is about comforting the afflicted. The passage we’re going to read does that very thing, and is in fact very appropriate to vacation season when we think of rest, ease, and lightened burdens. It could be said that this morning’s text has the aroma of fresh-squeezed lemonade, and sounds like the gentle creaking of a hammock which softly wraps its canvas around us as we lie back into it. This morning’s are timely and comforting words for weary, heavy-laden church people who faithfully continue the discipline of worship attendance during these sweltering summer Sunday mornings. Lie back in your spirits, and listen again to these familiar words of our Lord from Matthew’s Gospel.

            (Read Matthew 11:28-30)

            Sociologist Robert Bellah has observed in this book Habits of the Heart that a major challenge in our times is dealing with the inevitable fatigue which sets in when life is so fast and so full. It seems we are programmed to squeeze the most we can out of every hour of every day. Classes on time management, sales of time-saving devices, and promotion of digital methods and tools of communication all suggest that the greatest sin of our day is to squander time. In the process, we are a culture on the brink of exhaustion. The upshot is that Americans find it difficult if not impossible to just…… relax……mellow out……kick back…. In the ode to Beverly Hills mountain man Jed Clampett, the team of Flatt and Scruggs wrote: “Sit a spell. Take your shoes off. Y’all come back now, y’ hear”

            Several years ago, I taught a series of lessons based on episodes of another rural narrative – the Andy Griffith Show. One episode in particular illustrates the point. A visiting pastor to the church in supposedly laid back Mayberry, N.C. preaches on the subject of life being too fast and furious; that we need to make an effort to slow down and “smell the roses.” Following Sunday lunch, we find Andy, Opie, Aunt Bea, Barney Fife, and Gomer Pyle lounging on the Taylor’s front porch, sipping lemonade, taking seriously the pastor’s lesson. But they can’t relax for long as the idea hatches to put together an old-fashioned band concert in the Mayberry Park that very evening. Before long, everyone is scurrying around attempting to reconstruct the broken bandstand, repair the band’s tattered uniforms, and whip the group of hapless musicians into shape. By the end of the afternoon, the bandstand remains in a shambles, the uniforms are still tattered, the band is in disarray, and the Andy Taylor family sits exhausted on the front porch following their furious but fruitless efforts. The punch line of the episode is when the visiting pastor stops by on his way of out of town to bid the family a rushed farewell. Seeing all of them relaxing, he comments: “I’m glad to see you’re all taking this morning’s sermon to heart.”

            It’s an unfortunate fact that most of us simply don’t know how to rest or relax. We’ve become weary from constantly being on the go, yet feel helpless to break the cycle which consigns us to a life of perpetual frenzy and fatigue. In this vacation season, many of us look forward to getting away from it all for a while. But I know a lot of folks who are weary and fatigued in a way that no vacation can relieve. The truth is, vacations themselves are often whirlwind events that cover many miles, and leave us more exhausted then when we began. This is a sad irony, for we feel under pressure to get as relaxed and refreshed as possible during vacation, and in so doing, create for ourselves yet another cause for anxiety. On a rerun of The Jeffersons, George and Louise have finally gotten away from their high-powered dry cleaning business to a vacation in Hawaii. As they lie on the white-sanded beach bathed by the sun, George nervously asks his wife: “Weezee, am I relaxing enough yet?”

            I submit to you that this morning, Jesus extends an invitation which can meet our need. But what He offers is more than an occasional spiritual hiatus from the stresses and strains of life. In fact, Jesus’ invitation is not a break from the routine wherein we escape life by temporarily diverting our attention from our daily worries, digging our toes into the white sands, and then worrying whether we’re relaxing yet. Instead, Jesus’ invitation is to a lifestyle – an invitation to discover a new and better way to be renewed and refreshed, even while carrying our heavy loads; those things we feel weighed down by; the responsibilities and expectations that come from both faithfulness to God as well as from the strain of everyday living. Jesus’ offer is one of rest and strength that are available to us as we go about our lives, like a gently flowing stream of clear, cool water.

            The first thing we must understand is that Jesus acknowledges that heavy loads are a part of the inescapable reality of life. Our culture on the other hand would lead us to believe that if we could just somehow find that key to life, we could then shed our heavy loads; that life at its best ought to be effortless, void of burdens and duties which weigh us down. So we have a generation or three who are working themselves half to death in a effort to reach self-sufficiency and retire to some illusion of a carefree life. And an illusion it is.

            Jesus makes no offer to eliminate burdens, or to give us a vacation or retirement from them. He was too much a realist about life to sell such an empty bill of goods. Jesus offers us something better, something which is for the long haul. And that is to join us in carrying burdens…… if we’re willing to let Him. “Take my yoke upon you” is an invitation to entrust some of life’s weight to the mercy of this One who wants to walk beside us; to link to us in such a way that the burden is carried together. The essence of the invitation this morning is to couple our lives to Jesus Christ; to be joined with the One who cares for us passionately; whose spiritual resources for coping and overcoming are never fatigued or exhausted. The prophet Isaiah seemed to have a beat on Jesus who wouldn’t even be born to earth for another 700 years when God’s prophet wrote: “He does not faint or grow weary……He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.”

            Jesus has been forthright and realistic with His followers as recorded earlier by Matthew when He said things like: “I am sending you out like sheep in the midst of wolves,” and “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” No vacation there. And yet this powerful promise: rest and strength while carrying heavy loads. How will this happen? Jesus says, “Learn from me.” For us, this means getting into God’s word, intentionally carving time out of busy schedules to be in prayer and meditation, gathering regularly and consistently with our faith community to study, support, and serve. These are ways we allow Jesus to help us bear our load; to get in step with God; to catch the rhythm of God’s pace.

            Finally, this word of grace; refreshing as fresh-squeezed lemonade; comfortable as that favorite hammock: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The “rest” Jesus promises is made possible through the provision of a new yoke. Jesus’ yoke is called “easy.” The force of the underlying Greek word used here means “kind.” Any Amish farmer in Charm or Kidron would tell us that plowing a field using a team of workhorses or oxen demands a good yoke; one which is carefully designed and shaped so as there will be a minimum of chafing, binding, or pinching on the critter’s back. In being teamed with Jesus, He teaches that His yoke will be kind to our backs and shoulders, enabling us to carry the load more easily. In this sense, the burden of committing one’s life to Christ and following Him will be “light.” Jesus doesn’t diminish the weight of our accountability to God, or our responsibilities and struggles in life. Rather He extends the invitation to allow Him to help us along the way.

            “My yoke is easy” is spoken by the carpenter Son of a carpenter who knew the need for custom-fitted yokes. It is a reminder that our Lord knows us intimately: our strengths and weaknesses, the weight and nature of our loads, our capacity to bear, and cares enough about us to give us resources to carry the load, even to the extent that we “who wait for the Lord” – we who say “Yes” to His offer to be a load-bearer with us – “shall renew (our) strength, (we) shall mount up with wings like eagles, (we) shall run and not be weary, (we) shall walk and not faint.”      

      Herein lies the key to finding genuine rest, and yes, even relaxation in the milieu of life. We need not remain bound in a cycle which consigns us to a life of perpetual fatigue. Jesus extends the invitation this day: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Do yourself a favor, and say “I’m in.” So, sit a spell, take your shoes off, y’all come back now, y’hear.