Sunday, July 17, 2011

Sermon for July 17th: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Why doesn’t God do something now?

It’s not been a particularly inspiring couple of weeks for those who want to believe in the basic goodness of the human race. Over in the UK there’s been a growing scandal about journalists hacking into people’s cell phones - including relatives of soldiers who have been killed in Afghanistan. One daily newspaper, the ‘News of the World’, has already been shut down, but the scandal shows no signs of abating - in fact, the stories seem to be mounting up and spreading. Meanwhile, over in Afghanistan, where thousands of people have been killed in senseless acts of violence over the past few years, one more name has been added to the list – Ahmed Wali Karzai, brother of President Hamid Karzai, shot and killed by a close associate. And then this past week we had more terrorist bombings in Mumbai with many people killed or injured.

There seems to be no end to the corruption and violence human beings are capable of; if you’re like me, you feel like crying out to God: “How long? Why don’t you do something about all this? Why don’t you stop these people?”

The parables Jesus tells in Matthew chapter thirteen don’t give a direct answer to this question, but they do suggest that God’s direct, sovereign rule over the world might not be such a straightforward matter as some people imagine. After all, the evil events I’ve mentioned are far from isolated. Every three seconds a child dies of starvation, while much of the land in their countries is used for cash crops to benefit the people of richer nations, including ours – so that we can have cheap coffee, for instance. Women and children are exploited by pornographers, and many Christians admit privately to having a problem with internet pornography. Unelected dictators impose their will on nations for the benefit of themselves and their families, and heads of corporations impose their will on millions of people to benefit their shareholders – many of whom are good churchgoers.

Would people really like it if God ruled the world directly and immediately, in such a way that every evil thought and action was instantly judged and rewarded? Where would God draw the line in punishing evil? Would he include the evil of parents losing their temper at their children, or ordinary middle class people sipping coffee grown by workers living on starvation wages? Do we really believe in a God who would restrain evil when it seems heinous to us, but who would back off from restraining it when we benefit from it?

In contrast to this desire to see instant judgement, the parables in Matthew chapter thirteen are all about waiting. A farmer waits for harvest time; birds wait for a mustard seed to grow into a bush big enough for them to nest in; a woman waits for the leaven to spread through the whole loaf of bread. That’s what God’s kingdom is like. God is planting seeds and waiting patiently for them to grow. Now is not the time for harvesting; now is still the time for planting and nurturing the seeds. We have to wait patiently for the time of harvest to come.

The problem, of course, is that Jesus’ followers don’t want to wait. Notice what the slaves of the householder say in verse 28: ‘Then do you want us to go and gather (the weeds)?’ They want to go out right away and root out the weeds from among the wheat. But the farmer restrains them; if they do that, they may well root out some of the wheat as well. The word for ‘weeds’ used to be translated as ‘tares’ or ‘darnel’; it refers to a mongrel form of wheat with smaller leaves, not suitable for human consumption. However, in the early stages of its growth, it’s very difficult to distinguish from genuine wheat. Who can judge infallibly whether any given plant is wheat or tares? Only a very good eye can be certain of making the right decision in every case. Jesus would say: when it comes to people, only God can make that judgement.

The basic error Jesus points out here is the error of trying to impose on God our timetable for judgement. “God, now’s the time for you to act and wipe out those wicked people!” What Jesus is telling us is that God is working on a different timetable; in God’s timetable, we aren’t at harvest time yet.

At present, in God’s timetable, we’re at planting and nurturing time. The planting of the seeds began in biblical times, when the seed of God’s word was sown by the prophets and came to us in its fulness in Jesus, the Word of God. Jesus sowed the seeds of the kingdom, people responded, and the plant began to grow. The apostles continued this process of sowing and nurturing as the Gospel spread, people came to faith in Jesus, and began to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. That process is still going on today as the Gospel spreads all round the world, and in our area of the world as well. And while that planting and nurturing process goes on, the lines between good and evil, between Christian and non-Christian, are fuzzier than I would like to think.

There’s a myth that it’s an easy thing to divide people into the good and the bad, the Christian and the non-Christian. We might say that Jane is a good person and Peter is a bad person. But we don’t know what kind of start Jane and Peter had. Perhaps Jane was gifted with a good family; perhaps she enjoyed a privileged upbringing and had a naturally sunny disposition. But perhaps she hasn’t done much improving on all these good things she started with. Perhaps Peter started much further back; if you think he’s an awful person now, you should see what he used to be like! If you take into account the places they started, Peter has actually come a lot further than Jane.

By the same token, we might say that Jim is a Christian and Phil is not. But what if Jim grew up in a Christian home, was taken to church and taught the Christian faith, and still goes to church each week – but in reality has very little love for Christ in his heart and only goes because he has a position of respect in the congregation where people look up to him and he feels important? And, on the other hand, what if Phil, our non-Christian, doesn’t go to church yet, but is intrigued by Jesus, is attracted to his message, and is quite willing to admit that he himself has unmet spiritual needs? Who’s in and who’s out? Which direction is Jim moving in? Which direction is Phil moving in?

Jesus wants us to know that our present age is a time for sowing seeds, nurturing them, and waiting patiently for the growth. It’s a time for patient waiting, letting God do his work, while we get on with ours. To us, it might seem as if we’re having to wait for a long time for the final harvest. From God’s perspective it might look very different.

So all necessary time will be given for the crop to grow and bear fruit. However, Jesus also wants us to know that the time given will not be unlimited. In the future, harvest time will come. And to help us understand it, Jesus changes metaphors for a moment.

Most of us love nice sunset photographs. I have one that I took on Sauble Beach, on the eastern shore of Lake Huron, in the summer of 1977. The sun is going down over the lake; the sky is all reds, yellows and golds – it’s very spectacular. And when I read in verse 43 “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”, I tend to think of that gentle sunset image.

But the sun in the Middle East is very different. There’s no gentle sunrise and sunset; sunrise is a sudden onslaught of light and heat. When the sun comes up in the morning, it’s a threatening thing; people hide from it, find shady corners to escape it, and wear hats and veils if they have to go out in it. That’s the kind of sunlight Jesus’ followers were used to. What did he mean, in that context, when he said that ‘the righteous will shine like the sun’?

In a famous sermon, C.S. Lewis once said that every man, woman, and child in the world is moving in one of two directions. If we saw them today as we will one day see them, he said, we would either recoil in horror at the sight, or we would be strongly tempted to fall down and worship them. One day, God’s people will share the glory of God in such a powerful way that we might be tempted to think that in fact they are God. It’s not so much an innate physical brightness; rather, when the work of the Holy Spirit is complete in their lives, then each one will be fully capable of reflecting the brightness of God to others.

But some refuse to reflect the brightness of God; they are too full of themselves. Their own selfish needs and desires are the central theme of their lives. They put themselves at the centre of the world, and see other people as merely ‘supporting actors’ in a play that’s all about ‘me’. These folks are not hopeless cases, or not yet anyway. After all, God is a God who works miracles. In the Bible, God was able to transform the lives of several people who were considered hopeless cases. So we can expect that given time and a lot of prayer, some of these folks will respond to the Gospel message, come to Christ and put their faith in him.

Some – but not all. The plain meaning of scripture is that not everyone will respond positively to God’s invitation. And for those who persist in their refusal, harvest time will be the end of their opportunity to inflict their evil on others. Jesus says,

‘The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father’ (vv.41-43a).

This is a hard teaching and difficult for us to hear. There are two caricatures we need to avoid here. On the one hand, we have the caricature of God the sadistic monster, who gleefully consigns his beloved creatures to eternal fire and suffering. On the other hand, we have the caricature of God the indulgent grandparent, who is determined to spoil the kids, let them get away with all the wickedness they like all day long, and still give them candy at the end of the day. Both of these caricatures do violence to the plain meaning of the words of Jesus.

We’d all like to think that sooner or later everyone will turn to God. I would certainly prefer to think that! But the New Testament authors, including our Lord Jesus Christ, are more realistic. They indicate that if time is needed, time will be given, but even with all the time in the world, there are some who will still reject God, because they can’t bear not to be ‘god’ themselves. And in their case, God will respect their rejection of him, but will refuse them the continued opportunity to inflict evil on others.

So, what’s Jesus calling us to in this passage? He’s calling us to what one commentator calls ‘persistence in doing our work, and patience not to try to do God’s work’.

Deciding when the judgement should take place, and who should be judged, is not my work – it’s God’s work. That applies whether I’m thinking about a terrorist, a person who runs a corporation that exploits people in the Third World, or an ordinary sinner like me. It takes an expert eye to be able to tell wheat from tares; only God knows enough to make that judgement. And in God’s wisdom, he’s decided that the time to make that judgement has not yet arrived. Time is still necessary for the nurture of the plants – or even for the miraculous transformation of a weed into a stalk of wheat.

Please note that when I say this, I am not making any comment on the responsibility of human governments to restrain crime in this present age; our lawmakers and police forces may well have to use all their resourcefulness to do this. But we Christians will not join in the simplistic view of the world that sees it made up of the purely evil people – ‘them’ – and the good folk – ‘us’. We know that reality is much more complicated than that. That kind of judgement is beyond our scope; only God can see all things, so only God can make it.

We won’t try to do God’s work for him. Rather, we will concentrate on our work, which is to spread the seed of God’s message and nurture its growth in the lives of people. To be plain, we will first do all that we can to be good advertisements for the Gospel of Christ by the way we live our lives. Second, we will take every opportunity to do good in the world in the name of Christ. Thirdly, we will seize every opportunity to speak up for Christ and his Gospel and invite others to be his followers. We will do this faithfully, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and we will leave the results in the hands of God, who will bring the seeds to harvest in his good time.

So let us pray that God will grant us the persistence to do our work, and the patience not to try to do his.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sermon for July 10th: Matthew 13:1-23

Jesus and His Family Farming Business

Over the past few years we’ve had some pretty good ‘bring a friend’ services here at St. Margaret’s. These services are opportunities for us to share the good news of Jesus by inviting friends – people who don’t normally come to church - to join us for Sunday worship. ‘Back to Church Sunday’, on September 25th, is going to be our next ‘bring a friend’ Sunday.

Of course, the really vital element in a ‘bring a friend’ Sunday is you – you, the people of our parish family, actually taking your courage in your hands and speaking those scary words: ‘Would you like to come to church with me?’ Over the years many of you have done that, and many of your friends have accepted your invitation.

But not everyone has said ‘yes’; let’s be clear about that. I myself have invited friends who’ve been glad to come, but others haven’t. Some of them have told me that they want to come, but the date in question won’t work; others just aren’t interested. That’s the way it goes: the seeds are scattered, some of them bear fruit, and others don’t.

This was Jesus’ experience too. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is describing his own ministry; he’s been travelling around Galilee and Judea, scattering the seed of the Word of God – that is, sharing the message of the Kingdom and calling people to put their faith in him and to follow him. Huge crowds have been attracted by his healing miracles, and have stayed to listen to his teaching. But, contrary to what people often think, his teaching hasn’t always gotten through to them. His stories don’t always make sense at first hearing; you have think about them and try to work out what they mean. Not surprisingly, this turns out to be too much like hard work for some people.

And so the response to Jesus’ preaching isn’t always a stunning success story. Some people hear the message and can’t make sense of it; Jesus says that it’s as if the devil comes and snatches it away from their hearts, and so they don’t believe.

Some people are wildly enthusiastic about the message when they first hear it; they seem to be thoroughly converted and follow Jesus enthusiastically. But after a while they start to run into opposition, and perhaps even persecution, because of their new found faith in Jesus. They hadn’t bargained for this; they thought it was going to be plain sailing all the way, and so they get discouraged and give up.

Some people hear the message and believe it, but they’ve got too much else going on in their lives, and their love for their material wealth is like a chain around their hearts. So the word of God doesn’t produce a harvest in their lives; there are too many weeds growing up along with it, and the weeds drain the life out of the soil.

But some people hear the word and understand it, and put it into practice in their lives. The word bears fruit in them; their lives are transformed and they are able to share the message with others also.

This is the way it was in the ministry of Jesus, and this is the way it will be for us today as well. Jesus calls us to share the message of his kingdom and to make new disciples for him. Some will respond and some won’t. Some of those who respond will be faithful for a while and then fall away. And some will put the message into practice, change their way of life, and take the good news of Jesus to others as well.

Let’s think of this parable from two points of view. First, let’s see ourselves as the recipients of the seed of the Word; how do we make sure that we are like the good soil that bears a rich harvest? Second, let’s see ourselves as joining Jesus in the business of scattering the seed of the Word. What might we learn about that work from this story?

So first, how do we produce a rich harvest in our own lives? Jesus tells us that we do this by paying attention, by listening carefully to what he has to say, thinking it through and working out what it means for us to practice it.

In verse 9 Jesus says, ‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ As you know, not all listening is attentive listening. The runner who says “I was listening to my mp3 player while I was jogging’ and the mother who says “My three-year old just won’t listen to me!” aren’t describing exactly the same kind of listening, are they? Jesus calls us to a careful and attentive listening to him. He says, “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, in another thirty” (v.23). This is not just hearing the words of Jesus as background noise; this is pondering them, thinking through how we might actually obey them in our daily lives, and then putting them into practice. If we do this, Jesus says, we will produce a wonderful harvest.

So we have to think carefully about Jesus’ teaching and what it might mean for us to live by it. For instance, what would it mean for us to be so habitually truthful that no one would ever think of asking us to swear an oath; they’d just know that we never lie? What would have to change for us to obey Jesus’ teaching about turning away from anger and loving our enemies? What would our lives look like if we truly did not store up for ourselves treasures on earth, but concentrated instead on the kingdom of God and his righteousness? What would it mean for us, if we’re married, to be faithful to our marriage partner, not only in body, but also in mind and heart? When Jesus tells us to sell our possessions and give to the poor, how do we put that into practice in a world where we need to provide for our families in a northern climate?

There are legitimate questions and disagreements about the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, and so we need to think hard and pray honestly about what obedience might look like in our daily lives. What is not an option for us, if we’re Christians, is to say, “I just never think about obeying Jesus in that area of my life”. Remember what happened to the foolish man who built his house on the sand? And Jesus says that the foolish man represents the one “who hears these words of mine and does not act on them” (Matthew 7:26).

So much for our responsibilities as the recipients of the seed of the Word. Now, what about when we take our place on the other end of that process – when we join Jesus in the family farming business, so to speak, helping him to spread the good seed of the Word of God? In the parable, of course, Jesus was talking about his own ministry, but at the end of the gospels he tells his church to join him in this work; he calls all of his followers to go out and spread the good news, to make new disciples for him, and to teach them to obey his commandments. For obedient Christians this is not an option; it’s just part of the normal Christian life.

We Anglicans tend to get all uptight about this; we think we’re being asked to preach like Billy Graham or go up to total strangers on the street and ask them if they’re saved, and because we know we can’t do that sort of thing, we conclude that we’d better ‘let other people talk about their faith while we just live it’. But the Billy Graham model isn’t the only option open to us! After all, God designed each one of us; he gave us our temperaments and personalities, and he knows what we can do and what we can’t do. But he also called all of us, without exception, to be witnesses for him. That must mean that there is a way of scattering the seed of the word of God that would feel right for me, with the particular temperament God has given to me. Here are some examples.

Perhaps you put a church calendar or a Christian poster up on the wall of your office. Maybe one day someone makes a comment or asks a question about it, and you share briefly about what it means to you.

Or perhaps a fellow-worker finds out that you are a Christian and goes out of her way to tell you that she thinks Christianity is an emotional crutch for weaklings. You listen and you say that you have known others who shared that opinion. Then you go out of your way to care for that person, not because you’re trying to prove her wrong, but because you believe she needs extra love.

Or perhaps, in conversation with a friend, both of you are talking about difficult times you have gone through. You don’t try to pretend that Jesus took all your pain away, but you do say a bit about the help you found in your faith and your church.

Or maybe a friend shares with you that her daughter’s new baby has some serious health issues. You reply, “Would it be okay for me to pray for them?” By the way: if you’ve never done this, you will be totally amazed at how appreciative most people are when you make this offer! This is perhaps one of the easiest ways for most Christians to start sharing their faith with others, and over time it can lead to all sorts of opportunities for conversations about God.

Or perhaps a friend who knows you are a Christian asks you about The Da Vinci Code and other books and movies like that; don’t those books show that the gospel stories about Jesus aren’t true? You tell your friend that you don’t know much about it, but you’ll try to find out. So you ask your trusty parish priest to recommend a couple of good books on the subject, and then you get together with your friend again and talk about what you’ve learned.

You see, these are all examples of ways in which we can help to scatter the seed of the word. We aren’t responsible for results; as Paul says in one of his letters, “I planted the seed, someone else watered it, but God is the one who made it grow”. And believe me, if you start being more intentional about scattering the seed of the word, you are going to see some of those seeds growing!

Of course, not all of them are going to come up, and not all of the ones that come up are going to last. Every gardener knows that. We plant peas or beans, but not every seed produces fruit, and not every pea or bean plant survives to produce a harvest. In the same way, not every conversation we have with a friend leads to a new disciple for Jesus, and not every new disciple of Jesus sticks with him forever. But some do, and for them the result is tremendous blessing.

Let’s go round this one last time.

Jesus is in the farming business, sowing the seed of God’s word in people’s lives. The purpose of the seed is to produce the blessing of a good harvest – the transformation of lives by the love of God, and the sharing of that love with others so that they too can experience God’s transforming power.

So let’s receive the good seed of the Word of God, and let it produce a harvest in our own lives. Paul says, ‘the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control’ (Galatians 5:22-23). Those are good things, aren’t they? Those are wonderful things; I’d love to be that kind of person, and to live in a world full of that kind of people. And Jesus tells us that the way to do that is to listen carefully, to try to understand his message, and to learn to live by it. Let’s resolve to bring forth that kind of good fruit in our own lives, with the help of the Holy Spirit.

But the other side of this is that we, too, need to be scattering the seeds of the Word of God. In our daily lives we have all sorts of opportunities to speak a word for Christ, and I’ve given some examples of ways we might do this. There are many other ways as well. One of the most wonderful experiences a Christian can have is to speak the right word at the right time to the right person, and see that word starting to bear fruit in people’s lives. I’ve had that experience, and if you haven’t had it, then let me encourage you to start looking out for opportunities to spread some seed around. Believe me, the Holy Spirit will use the words you speak in the most unexpected ways, and the harvest will be wonderful!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Sermon for July 3rd: Matthew 11:25-30

Some Things Only a Son Knows

In Tom Wright’s little book about Matthew’s Gospel I found this great story:

I went this morning to a memorial service to honour one of the world’s greatest sportsmen. Colin Cowdrey was one of the greatest cricketers of all time; not quite cricket’s Babe Ruth, but not far off. He was known and loved all around the world – not least in India, Australia, Pakistan and the West Indies, whose cricketers had learned to fear his extraordinary ability, and whose crowds had come to love him as a man, not just as a player.

The service was magnificent. Tributes flowed in from around the world; a former prime minister gave the main address; a special song had been written. But for me the most moving moment was when one of Cowdrey’s sons came forward and spoke of his father from his inside knowledge. This great public figure, who gave of himself in later life to every good cause he could find, had never lost his close and intimate love for his children and grandchildren. There were many fine stories which only a son could know, and only a son could tell. It was a heartwarming and uplifting occasion.

I wonder what it felt like for Colin Cowdrey’s son to sit in the memorial service and listen to all the other tributes being paid to his father? On the one hand, he must have thought, “This is wonderful! I’m so proud to be this man’s son!” But on the other hand there must have been times when he felt frustrated, because many of the tributes were based on knowledge of his father which was much more superficial than his. There must have been times when he could hardly wait to get to his feet and tell the inside story.

This story may give us an insight into what it meant to be Jesus, the Son of God, walking the earth and trying to share the truth about his Father with human beings. And not just with any human beings: with God’s chosen people Israel, who had been learning about God’s ways for a millennium and more. Was Jesus surprised by their lack of interest in the message he brought? It seems that he was. In verse 21 he reflects back on some of the cities in Galilee where he has been preaching and healing the sick. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes”. In other words, “If I did things like this among the pagan nations, they’d be turning to God by the thousands!”

The problem, of course, was that God’s people didn’t think they needed any help learning about God, and they certainly didn’t need it from an amateur! Who did he think he was, telling them about God? They’d been studying the Torah all their lives, and they knew all the explanations the rabbis had given down through the centuries applying each general law to specific situations. And then along comes Jesus, an uneducated upstart with a strong Galilean accent, and presumes to instruct them about God. They must have thought, “Go away to university for a decade, Jesus; then when you come back, we’ll talk!”

But Jesus’ knowledge of God came from a completely different source. Jesus had learned about God the way a son learns about his father – by living with him, by watching him at work and at play, by imitating him and learning to be like him. He was like an instinctive musician with perfect pitch, walking around among people who knew all about the history of classical music, but were entirely tone deaf themselves.

Think about how frustrating this must have been sometimes for Jesus! I’m a musician myself, and I have a pretty good ear as well. I can tell when my guitar is in tune or out of tune, even when no one else can hear it; I can tell when a singer is bang on, or flat or sharp. This isn’t something I’ve achieved by hard work, so I can’t take any credit for it; it’s something I was born with. And I often forget that other people don’t have it. It surprises me that they can’t hear the things that I can hear.

That must have been what it was like for Jesus to be walking around on this earth. We talk about people taking time to ‘discover who they are’. For Jesus, part of that process involved discovering that other people didn’t have the same kind of intimate knowledge of God that he had. There are some things about a father that only a son can know.

And so Jesus said these words in verse 27 which sound so arrogant and shocking and exclusive to us: “All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him”. The word for ‘handed over’ refers to the formal handing down of religious traditions from generation to generation. We would say, “The Anglican tradition has been handed down to us from our ancestors”. But Jesus speaks in a much more direct way: “I didn’t get it from my ancestors; I got it from my Father in heaven”.

If this sounds arrogant, let’s remember the story of Colin Cowdrey’s son at his father’s memorial service. Let’s imagine him again listening to the tributes people were paying to his father. Some of them might have caused him to quietly shake his head and think “No, that’s not right”. Others might have caused him to think, “Yes, I can see how it might have looked that way from the outside, but the inside story gives a very different picture”. The other things that were being said were not all wrong, but none of them were based on the kind of intimate knowledge that the son had of his father.

So there’s a paradox in these words of Jesus. On the one hand, there’s an exclusive claim Jesus makes: he has inside knowledge about God that no one else has ever had, before or since. But then immediately afterwards comes this wonderfully inclusive invitation: the Son has no interest in keeping his knowledge of the Father to himself. He wants to share it with everyone. He invites everyone to come to know God as he knows God, and so to find rest and release from the burdens they are carrying. And so he says,

“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 will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (vv.28-30).

It’s tempting for me to preach on this passage of Scripture in such a way as to offer you Jesus, the ultimate relaxation specialist, and St. Margaret’s as a sort of spiritual spa! But if I was to do that, I wouldn’t be faithful to the text. Because the kind of burdens that Jesus has in mind here are primarily religious burdens. Jesus is saying to his hearers, ‘The kind of religion you’ve learned from the experts doesn’t take the load off your shoulders; rather, it increases it. That’s not what I’m offering you today. I’m offering you a relationship with God that can give you rest from the burdens religion has laid on your back’.

I’ve seen these burdens. I’ve seen people who live in fear that, no matter how hard they try to keep God’s commandments, they’re never going to measure up. They’re never going to be good enough. They see God as a cruel taskmaster standing over their shoulders laying the burden of commandment after commandment on them, and if they slip up and don’t pull their weight - no heavenly reward for them! Some people are so scarred by this kind of religion that they turn away from God for the rest of their lives, never suspecting that the God they are turning away from is not the God Jesus told us about.

Many of Jesus’ contemporaries were probably tired of the weight of the religious traditions they’d inherited from their ancestors. What was the specific way in which an animal should be sacrificed? The law said not to work on the Sabbath, but what exactly was work? Was walking work, and if so, how far could you walk before it became work? What was the exactly correct way of washing your hands in order to be ritually clean before a meal? And so it went on – hundreds of ritual laws which had very little to do with loving God and loving your neighbour. But if you were a shepherd and had sheep to look after, how could you avoid breaking the sabbath? Or if you didn’t have access to clean water, how could you do the correct ritual washings? And so, for some people, the law stopped being a road to God and became instead a roadblock.

Jesus says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (v.30). Think about this word ‘yoke’. We’re talking about oxen here, and the wooden contraption that binds two of them together and allows them to cooperate in pulling a plough. Jesus was a carpenter; he’d probably made a good few yokes in his time, and he might even have advertised them with a slogan like “My yokes fit!”

This helps us to understand another paradox in these verses: in verse 28 Jesus promises us rest, but by the end of the passage he’s talking about us bearing his yoke, and that doesn’t sound like rest! But some translators have suggested that verse 30 might be better translated, not as ‘my yoke is easy’, but ‘my yoke fits well’. In other words, the yoke of discipleship Jesus lays on us is something that is suited exactly to us, and our condition. It’s not a way of life that adds to our burdens of guilt and fear and tiredness; rather, it sets us free, because it teaches us the way God designed for us to live in the first place.

The great Methodist preacher John Wesley discovered this way for himself. He had been brought up as a very religious person and devised all sorts of rules for himself. He was even ordained as a minister and went to the American colonies as a missionary. But his legalistic religion was a complete failure: it didn’t attract converts, and he was beginning to realise that it wasn’t working for him, either. And so he returned to England feeling like a failure; in his diary he wrote, “I went to America to convert the Indians, but oh, who will convert me?”

But that wasn’t the end of Wesley’s story. On the ship he met some Moravian Christians who impressed him with the joy of their faith, which seemed very far removed from the legalistic religion Wesley knew. Back in London, in May 1738, he attended a prayer meeting of Moravian Christians in Aldersgate Street. Someone was reading a passage from Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans, and the light went on for Wesley: he realised that Christianity wasn’t a scary religion of rule-keeping but a celebration of the love of God in Christ, and that he could received God’s love by faith and trust in Christ. He said that he felt his heart ‘strangely warmed’. Years later, he would describe it as ‘exchanging the faith of a servant for the faith of a son’.

That can happen for you and me as well. We can discover a Christian life that’s not about keeping rules out of fear of God’s punishment; rather, it’s about learning to follow Jesus joyfully, in gratitude for the love of God that has been poured out on us through Christ. It’s about knowing beyond a shadow of doubt that we are loved by God, adopted as his children, gifted with his Holy Spirit – not because we earned it, but because God loves to give his gifts to his sons and daughters.

When Wesley discovered this kind of faith, it transformed him into a messenger; he travelled the length and breadth of England, preaching to huge crowds of people; thousands of them came to faith in Christ and experienced this joy and freedom for themselves. Legalistic religion can’t do that, because it doesn’t sound like good news. The true gospel of Christ can do that, because it lifts our burdens and puts a song in our hearts.

Do you have that song in your heart this morning? Let’s close by listening again to these words of Jesus, these words of invitation that go out to everyone: “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 will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits well, and my burden is light”.

So – shall we come?