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Encouragement: How to Handle Our Burdens

May 24, 2009
Sermon:  June 24, 2009
Text:  Matthew 11:28-30

We come today to a passage of Scripture today that is certainly fitting for our series on encouragement.  I would invite you to turn to Matthew 11.  One of the problems with familiar passages like this is that we have heard them so many times we sometimes miss their impact.  I want to suggest to you that this passage, consisting of only three verses, is very stunning.  In fact, the entire Chapter 11 is one that will absolutely knock your socks off if you read it in context and read it with fresh eyes.

 Matthew 11:28-30:  “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, 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.”

 If you go into our prayer garden, you will find there a blue granite bench positioned across from the waterfall.  An inscription on the back consists of words from this part of holy Scripture:  “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden.”  As you read that excerpt, you see it as a great invitation to just stop and rest on that cool granite in a beautiful garden.  It certainly is a passage that reminds us that Jesus wants to give us confidence when life is difficult.  Our Lord issues this invitation because we need refreshment, encouragement. 

 I have said to you that these verses are stunning.  They are set in the context of a chapter that is quite remarkable.  I want us to look at four sections that precede this particular passage.  The chapter begins with words about John the Baptist:  “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.  When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent two disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:1-3). 

 Consider that this question came from John the Baptist, the one known as the forerunner of Jesus.  This question was from the same man who had said, “I am not even worthy to untie his sandals,” (John 1:27) and the same man who had said, “I must decrease.  He must increase” (John 3:30).  This question came from the very same lips that had spoken the words, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). 

 We sometimes speak of Doubting Thomas, but I have never heard anyone speak of Doubting John the Baptist.  John, who baptized Jesus, was now asking a question that showed doubt: “Are you really the one?  Did I baptize the wrong guy?  Did I declare the wrong one to be the Lamb of God?  Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”  I do not know how that inquiry strikes you, but it is a rather startling revelation here in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew. 

 Look with me at Verse 16.  Here, Jesus is speaking to the culture.  He is speaking to the religious leaders and teachers.  He is speaking to the entire generation.  He asks, “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others; ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance.  We sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’”  Jesus is saying, “Listen, I have come to bring the good news of the gospel, but you do not even recognize those points where you should take great joy.  You should find absolute delight in some points, while other points should be quite disconcerting to you.  They may even make you weep, but you are not responding to my message.” 

 Look a little further along in Verse 20:  “Then Jesus began to denounce the cities in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent.”  Here Jesus is addressing the people who had benefited most from his ministry, those who had heard him teaching, those who had heard him preaching, those who had seen miraculous signs and wonders, those who had seen him heal the sick, restore sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf.  These people had experienced the very nature of Jesus, yet they were unrepentant. 

Consider Verse 25:  “At that time Jesus said, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned…’”  It is as if Jesus takes a shot now at all the scholars, the academics, those who should have known better.  Jesus is telling them, “Listen, those of you who should know me best of all just do not get it.  John, you just don’t get it.  These cities where I have performed miracles just don’t get it.  All of those who have heard my message and those who have studied the Scripture so intently, just do not get it.  Now I have come to fulfill the law and the prophets, and you just do not get it.  You do not know how to respond.” 

He adds how grateful he is for babies and little children.  He is not likely talking about infants in the nursery or those who are childish.  He is probably talking about those who are childlike in their faith – people who have not lost their sense of curiosity, their sense of wonder, and their ability to trust.  These are the ones to whom the kingdom of heaven has been revealed. 

Then Jesus offers the remarkable invitation that all of us would like to hear in Verse 28:  “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  This invitation to the weary is sometimes called the Great Invitation.  The word rest can be used in a variety of ways in Scripture.  Sometimes rest is a synonym for the Sabbath.  Some have taken this as strictly a Sabbath invitation.  If we look carefully at the beginning of Chapter 12, you see that Jesus enters into the Sabbath Discourses.  Certainly these verses might serve as appropriate transition to that message. 

 Jesus’ promise of rest for weary souls has a particular application in the context of Matthew’s Gospel.  You remember that Jesus said of the scribes and the Pharisees that they put heavy burdens on those who tried to be obedient to the law.  Sometimes it was referred to as the Burden of Torah.  Jesus said that those who were such strict adherents to the law, though they placed heavy burdens on others, did not keep the law themselves.  Those burdens became a kind of legalism. 

All kinds of Jewish rules and regulations existed.  Some have compared the number of laws as equaling the number of seeds in a pomegranate, an estimated 936.  What a lot of seeds!  Let me name just one of the laws to refresh your memory.  One law stated that if a stone wall fell on a person on the Sabbath day, any passerby was allowed to remove only enough stones to see if the person under the rubble was Jewish or Gentile.  If the person was Jewish, the passerby was allowed to remove the remaining stones in order to set the person free.  If the person was Gentile, no more stones could be removed until the Sabbath had ended. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, written primarily to a Jewish audience, Matthew 11:28-30 addresses the kind of law that heaps heavy burdens on the shoulders of people.  Jesus is saying that he will grant freedom and rest from the burden of legalism.  Throughout the history of the church and the preaching of the Christian church, this passage has meant so much more.  It applies to any kind of burden.

Let me identify three burdens that we very well might bring to the Lord Jesus.  One is the burden of sin, especially unconfessed sin from which we have not repented, sin that has not been forgiven.  That burden can absolutely weigh us down.  Most of us have read in an English class Nathaniel Hawthorne’s marvelous novel The Scarlet Letter.  That work addresses how unconfessed sin can actually make a person physically sick.  The Lord invites us to bring to Him this burden of unconfessed sin, this burden of shame, this burden of remorse, this burden of guilt.  I would suggest that if you are carrying a burden of sin, the way to come to Christ is to imagine yourself coming to the foot of the cross.  There, looking up into the face of Jesus, simply tell him that you are sorry.  Name your sins to him.  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just.  He will forgive us as he has promised.  He will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 

The reformer Martin Luther carried such a heavy load of sin.  He often went to his confessor there in the monastery and poured out his heart, confessing every sin he could imagine.  Luther apparently suffered from what is called scrupulosity.  He was so guilt-ridden that he felt he could never come completely clean before the Lord.  After confessing his sins, he would go back to his little cell in the monastery and try to get some much needed rest.  You can only imagine that his confessor needed rest, too.  Then Luther would awaken in the night and realize that he had committed other sins that he could not remember but needed to acknowledge.  Feeling the urgency to confess, Luther would return to his confessor, awake him, and concede the fact that he had sinned but could not remember what the sins were. 

It was not until he was translating Paul’s letter to the Galatians that he found liberty from this burden.  He found freedom in the Apostle Paul’s words that we are justified, not by our works but by the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11). That concept is so beautifully expressed in the hymn:  “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, Look full into his wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim In the light of his glory and grace.”  If you are carrying a burden of sin, the only solution is to confess them to the Lord Jesus.

Many carry a burden of suffering and pain.  Some of the most intense and excruciating suffering I have seen in human life has been in particular members of Morningside Baptist Church.  They suffered so severely and have now gone to heaven.  I am so appreciative that all suffering is relieved in heaven.  I am so grateful that those dear people do not carry that burden anymore.  So many people bear this weight.  For some, it is physical pain.  For others, it is mental anguish.  Whatever the nature of this suffering, we must bring it to Christ.  He is the Great Physician.  When we place this burden on him, we do not need to expect an immediate analgesic.  We do not need to expect an immediate anesthesia.  We do not need to expect that all of our pain will be relieved. 

The Apostle Paul writes in II Corinthians 11-12 about his experience with affliction, especially with what he called a “painful thorn in the flesh.”  Some have speculated that the burden that tormented him might have been epilepsy or bad eyesight.  Others have suggested that he had severe doubts of depression.  Whatever the load, Paul said that he prayed fervently three times that this “painful thorn in the flesh” be removed.  Paul had no anesthesia and no analgesic.  God responded to his plea with, “No, Paul.  You must carry this suffering.”  Paul reveals that this experience of carrying his suffering taught him that God’s grace was sufficient for every circumstance.  He makes a remarkable statement that sounds like a riddle:  “When I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:10).  It is as if he is saying, “When I come to the end of my own resources, when I reach the limit of my ability to endure, I can count on the grace of God.  It is a grace beyond anything I can imagine.”

A third burden I would mention this morning is the pain of sorrow and grief.  So many of you have experienced this weight.  I saw a man in a grocery store on Friday whose face was etched with grief.  He had recently been through a very long siege that finally ended in death for his dear wife.  Jesus, “the man of sorrows, acquainted with grief,” invites us to come to him (Isaiah 53:3).  The prophet Isaiah wrote, “Surely he will carry our sorrows and bear our griefs” (Isaiah 53:4).  Jesus, who understands the gift of tears, wept at the tomb of his friend Lazarus.  He understands this kind of grief.  He knows what a burden grief is and knows that it will absolutely fatigue us. 

Jesus, though, invites us to bring our sorrow, our grief, to him.  “What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear.”  The words of that hymn are true.  Jesus promises us rest, a synonym for salvation for those whose lives are pockmarked with sin.  Rest may mean relief from burning pain and a gift of grace to those who suffer.  Rest can certainly mean comfort for a broken heart for those who grieve. 

Have you ever tried to comfort a child that would not be comforted?  Perhaps the child was ill with a fever, and it kept crying and crying and crying.  You finally got the child settled and put your head on the pillow for some blissful rest.  You barely even got your eyes shut when you heard the child’s cry.  You were up and at it again.  I used to think that the most difficult task in the whole world was being a young mother.  I have changed my mind.  The most difficult job in the whole world is being a grandmother.  About the time she gets a grandchild settled, the telephone rings.  One of her adult children needs some word of encouragement, some word of advice, from her.  Grandmothers are asked to help two generations, not just one.

Jesus speaks the words of invitation, “Come unto me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  Just when we begin to feel as if we can get comfort from our security blanket and be at rest, he jolts us by adding an element of shock, a stunning change of pace: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.”  “Wait just a minute,” you say.  “I need rest, but you offer me a yoke, a symbol of servitude?  A symbol of hard work?  A symbol of obedience?  I need rest, and you are going to give me a yoke?”

Why does Jesus offer us rest and then immediately speak of a yoke?  During the silent years of Jesus’ life, that time between the ages of twelve and thirty, we know very little.  One legend is that Jesus, working in Joseph’s carpenter shop, developed a specialty, making yokes.  If Jesus did specialize in making yokes, he would have invited the owner to bring the pair of oxen by the shop to be fitted.  Jesus would have first measured the shoulders of the oxen and their height, especially relative to each other.  He would have crafted a yoke especially for that team of oxen, as yokes are not made one-size-fits-all.  After the completion of the yoke, the oxen would return again for another fitting so that Jesus could smooth that yoke so that it fit properly.  When Jesus says, “For my yoke is easy,” the word for easy ought to be well-fitting.  It is a yoke designed especially for the one’s carrying the burden. 

When I was ordained, a mountaineer in Monticello, Kentucky, gave me a little model yoke.  He explained, “When folks get ordained in our church, we do not give them a piece of paper.  We give them a yoke, which I make.  Ministry is hard work, and when you go in the ministry, you become yoked to Jesus.”  The yoke is a symbol of my ordination, made for me by a man knew this passage of Scripture.  He had a lot of sense.

Have you ever heard anyone say, “I bring my burdens to Jesus and but then go back and collect them?”  If I read this Scripture right, that is exactly what we are supposed to do.  We are not to dump our burdens on Jesus and expect him to get rid of them forever.  We are to take our burdens to Jesus.  He then fashions a yoke that fits perfectly.  He will come alongside us, get under the burden with us, and help us carry it.  “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” does not mean that we get rid of the burden.  It means that we find a different way to carry it with the companionship of Jesus.

I cut myself shaving this morning.  I tore off a piece of toilet paper and stuck it on my chin to stop the bleeding.  I was getting ready to walk out the door to come to church when Clare told me to look in the mirror.  When I did, I saw that piece of paper stuck on my face.  As I removed it, I thought about today’s Scripture passage.  James says that this Scripture is like a mirror.  If we are really going to understand its meaning, we have to look into that mirror to see ourselves.  I have done that. 

I know on this Memorial Day weekend, we honor all of our war-dead, all those who have served in the military.  Today is also Erik’s birthday.  He would have been thirty-six years old.  To be quite honest with you, I have been thinking about just him, that one son, today.  I look into this passage and see so much truth here. 

On Father’s Day before his death, Erik gave me a book entitled The Courage to Write.  He encouraged me, “Dad, you need to write for a much larger group.  You have too many stories.” 

At that time, I was writing a column for the Morningside newsletter and writing sermons, but after his death I started writing more.  It took me a while to get started, but I found my rhythm.  Now I am writing several columns a week – one for the newsletter, one for the HJ Weekly, and sometimes one for the Herald Journal.  I have written several books, and two are in process. 

I made up a wise old saying:  Never waste a good experience of suffering.  Never waste a life experience in which your heart hurts.  Find a way for it to become redemptive.  As far as I can tell, you cannot accomplish that on your own.  You must take that experience to the Lord Jesus.  He will not take your burden away from you.  He will not just give you instant relief.  That is not the way he works.  Take your burdens to the Lord.  He will call you to an avenue of ministry that allows you to use that burden to do His work.  He will craft a yoke that fits you well, a double yoke that will fit you just right.  He will get under that burden with you and help you carry it now in the direction He wants you to go, doing the work He has for you.  It is the way that we see the fulfillment of Romans 8:28:  “All things work together for good to those who love God and who are called according to his purpose.”

It is likely that you can see the way these plans work for good only in retrospect.  I am not sure I would have seen it nine years ago.  Now from this vantage point, I can see how God has allowed me to use this burden, not with my own ingenuity but with Christ alongside me.  Paul uses the expression “yoke fellows.”  We are yoked together in this task of ministry.  He wants us to commit that burden to him so that he can help us find a way to use it for his purpose.  That well-fitting yoke does not remove the burden, but it certainly makes it much lighter.

The way to ease the load is by first accepting Christ as your Savior.  Come to him with those sins.  Come to him with that rebellion and say, “Lord, you are in charge, not me.  I believe that you died for my sins.  I confess those sins and invite you to come into my heart and life.  Help me be what you want me to be.”  Once you do that, Jesus will begin to guide your steps, day by day.  You will find as you go along that he has a plan and a purpose for your life.

Kirk H. Neely
© May 2009
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