✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
For all of the leisure time we have in our modern era, for all the hours we spend engaged with our various screens and technologies, it’s amazing how often people complain about being tired and worn out. It may not only be a physical weariness of difficult or tedious work, but a mental exhaustion, too, information overload. As the warm weather finally arrives, people are eager to get away from it all and take a trip or a vacation, decompress and recharge. Of course, as enjoyable as a getaway can be, most people realize they need a vacation after their vacation before they will actually feel rested and refreshed. We keep seeking after things that will de-stress and rejuvenate us and give us peace, but we never quite seem to get all the way there.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the rest that He gives to those who are tired and burdened. He is not talking simply about outward, temporary relaxation bur rather inward, lasting restoration and peace, rest for your souls. So today, we will be seeking first to identify what it is that makes our souls so weary, and then second, to discover where and how we may obtain this rest which Jesus is speaking about, the true rest which continues forever.
What is it that exhausts our souls? For some it is very simply the stress of fulfilling their many responsibilities in life and all the things you have to deal with as a parent and a spouse and a worker and a volunteer and a caretaker. The anxiety that comes from doing everything that needs to be done can cause more than just bodily tiredness, it can drain a person's spirit. For others, it is struggling to live up to the expectations and social pressures of family members or friends that makes them inwardly worn out. They never feel like they quite measure up. For many, burdens of the soul can be caused by bodily troubles and sicknesses, which wear a person down mentally and can raise the nagging question, "Why is this happening to me?" And for still others, spiritual weariness comes from the fact that they've been dragging around a load of guilt with them for years and sometimes even decades. Some failure or something they deeply regret having done won't leave them alone but seems to hang on to them like a ball and chain.
But in the most ultimate and truest sense, the thing that makes our souls "weary and burdened" is the all-encompassing demands laid on us by God's Law. Now at first we might think that we can handle God's commands. "Don't murder. Don't steal. Don't commit adultery. Honor your parents. Remember the Sabbath Day." Those aren't always easy, but with a little effort we can usually pull that weight. But then we learn that there's more to it than that. "Don't murder" also means that we should help our neighbor in all his physical needs, even to the point of loving our enemies. "Don't commit adultery" also means that we should constantly honor and love our spouse. "Don't steal" also means that we should help others to improve and protect their possessions. That’s a lot heavier load. And then we discover that we can also break God's commandments in our hearts. Lust is adultery. Anger is murder. Greed is stealing. Now, it takes all of our might just to drag that burden an inch. And that's not even the end of it. We're stopped dead in our tracks, drained of all our strength when God says in His Word, "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." And, "You, therefore, must be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
God's Law is like a gigantic boulder to which we are chained. And He says, "Pull it! If you want to get to heaven on your own steam, you must drag it all the way there." And not one of us can. Our fallenness burdens our conscience and makes life an exhausting spiritual struggle.
So where do we find rest? The kind of rest we are speaking about is not to be found in a vacation trip or a six-pack or in any other earthly pleasure. No, in the Gospel Jesus tells us where real, lasting rest is to be found by saying, "Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Notice the gift language there. No purchase necessary. “I will give you rest.” To those who are weighed down by the burden of anxiety or stress, Jesus says, "Here, let me carry it." To those who've been dragging around a load of guilt Jesus says, "Here, let me pull it." To those who've been worn down and worn out by the demands of God's Law Jesus says, "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."
A yoke, of course, is a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals, like horses or oxen, are joined together for plowing. So it might seem a bit odd at first that Jesus would invite us to come to Him for rest and then say, "Take my yoke upon you," as if it was not rest He was offering but hard labor. However, that is clearly not Jesus' intent. What He is saying rather is, "Stop your exhausting and futile efforts to pull that load alone. Hook up with me; let me do it."
One of the parts of a yoke is a piece called an evener. This evener can be adjusted so that the stronger of the two animals pulls the heaviest portion of the load. Well, in our case, the evener is adjusted all the way so that we pull the whole load through Christ and by His strength alone. For only He has the power to move it. Only He has the power to fulfill the Law of God and to overcome sin. We are yoked together with Christ by faith, so that His work counts as our own. He does all the pulling and we get all the credit. By His grace Christ joins Himself to us in such a way that His righteousness is our righteousness before God the Father. Jesus bears the yoke of the cross, and so do we. But He bears the full burden of it; He’s the One carrying the load. Christ walks beside us day by day in this world and dwells in us by His holy words and sacraments, that He may live His life through us, a life of faith and love that is well-pleasing to the heavenly Father.
You see, Jesus' purpose in coming to this earth was to do for us what we had to do but could not do. Having taken on Himself our human nature, He, the Son of God, began to live a holy life for us. He overcame temptation. He loved and gave of Himself for others. He fulfilled all the requirements of God's Law. And then He submitted Himself to a cruel and torturous death in our place in obedience to His heavenly Father. He dragged the weight of the entire world's sin up the Mount of Calvary. There He was crucified. Our sins were paid for that day, nevermore to accuse us, nevermore to burden our souls. Jesus became weak so that we would be made strong. He became weary to the point of death so that we would have rest and life. And now that He has conquered death by His glorious resurrection from the grave, we are made certain that this rest He gives is real and this life He bestows is everlasting.
Jesus' invitation to each of you today, then, is to renew your faith in Him, the faith by which you are yoked together with Him. For when He says, "Come to me," and "Take my yoke upon you," that is the same as His saying, "Believe in me. Place your confidence in what I've done to save you. Let your heart take refuge in Me. Trust in me to help pull you through the struggles of this life." You were yoked together with Christ already in your baptism, where He said to you, "I have called you by name; you are mine. I will never leave you or forsake you." Jesus is walking with you even today, every step of the way, through the high points and the low points, through the good and the bad, so that regardless of your circumstances, you may have His restfulness and His peace in your souls, that peace which passes all understanding. Christ gives you rest along the way by speaking into your ears His comforting words of absolution. And He offers you refreshment by placing into your mouths His holy body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, to strengthen you with His real presence, His very life.
That is why the day of the divine service is rightly called the Sabbath Day, the day of rest. For it is especially in the liturgy that Christ gives you true spiritual rest and recreation. It is here that the Holy Spirit uses His instruments of life to re-create you and renew you in the image of Christ. Our Lord will finally lead you from here to the eternal re-creation–the new creation–and to the unending rest and peace and joy which is being prepared for you in heaven.
Of course, to the world, this may all seem foolish, even childish. But remember what Jesus said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babies. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.” The so-called smart people of this world keep searching for rest in places it cannot be truly found–in the idols of things and people and false spirituality. Only those who are weak and lowly find real rest in Christ, for He is the One who is gentle and lowly in heart, who comforts the afflicted, who declares sinners to be righteous, who gives rest to the weary and life to the dead.
To conclude, Revelation 14 speaks of heaven and hell in terms of rest. Of unbelievers, it says this: "The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night." But of believers, yoked together with Christ, it says this: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors."
God grant, then, that you who are weary will heed Jesus' invitation and come to Him with trusting hearts. For He gives you the rest of your life–both in this world and in the one to come.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠