The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in commemoration of St Matthias, Apostle, 24 February 2020.
25 At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. 27 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. 28 Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Dear brothers and sisters of our Lord Jesus Christ: The call to find rest in Jesus strikes a chord that resonates deeply in our hearts and souls. I must admit that I feel perpetually weary under the strain of work and home responsibilities, stress and worry about the future and the wellbeing of my loved ones. And my colleagues in the ministry, here at the seminary and in the circuit, often express the same emotions. The academic schedule, with the intense demands of short terms and overloaded semesters, is bound to induce similar weariness in you. So also does tension with our spouses and children, worry about declining health, and I don’t think I need to go on. You’re tired enough already. We all look for rest and relief in our own ways, some more effective than others. Some while away the hours on video games—mindless diversion. Others bury themselves in a good book or just go to bed early. It’s proverbial that a change is as good as a rest, and so on Family Day weekend the roads were crowded with people trying to get away, as we did in wintery Ottawa. And we all manage to find some relief.
But the cycle of exhaustion and rest continues endlessly, and it seems to me that we’re not very good at diagnosing the root sickness. So the medicine misses the mark. More often than not the tension and tiredness comes from carrying a burden that’s not fundamentally physical or emotional, but rather spiritual. And relief from such a burden can’t be found in the usual kind of diversions. Where relationships are strained by an angry word or simmering but silent resentment, escaping for a time may only make matters worse. Where guilt or shame damages our soul, it weakens our bond with God—and we can’t repair it by escaping from Him. We need to seek Him. King David, who surely had a wheelbarrow-sized load of trouble in his life as monarch, soldier, and father, nonetheless realised that relief could only be found by turning to God. In Psalm 42 he cried out:
2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?
3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, “Where is your God?”
4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise Him, my salvation. (Ps. 42)
David aches for bygone days when he was able to take refuge in God’s house, that is, to draw near to the Tabernacle and unburden himself at the altars of prayer and sacrifice, to find that cleansing and refreshing of the heart that only God’s daily services could offer. And he longs to be back in that place and be able to praise Him again.
It is into David’s well-worn shoes that our Lord Jesus steps in today’s Gospel, when He takes up the Psalmist’s favoured language of praise, and cries out: “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Mt. 11:25). In His praise of the Father, Jesus acknowledges that we can only find relief with Him, the God who reveals His loving and forgiving heart to us, His children. But where David longed to be back in the Tabernacle, Jesus simply says, “Come to Me, all [you] who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Jesus takes the place of the Psalmist in leading His people’s praise. And He takes the place of the Tabernacle by being Himself the place for that praise. Coming to Him we find the Father’s love, and in Him we find our rest.
There is scarcely another passage of the NT that more beautifully extolls what we’ve come to call the Great Exchange. “Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light” (Mt. 11:29-30). In this Great Exchange Jesus pledges to take up and carry what weighs you downs and wears you out—the stress, the worry, the simple exhaustion—and in return He promises a vessel to carry that He’s emptied of its load. And when you begin to picture the burden Jesus carried—the crown of thorns pressing down, the lashings on His back, the literal weight of the crossbeam on His shoulders—you quickly realise that the burden He’s taken from you isn’t just the exhaustions of this weary life but rather the guilt, the shame, the fear of God that darkens your heart and soul. Yet this is the same Jesus who elsewhere called on us to take up His cross and follow Him, and so I wonder if He really means to say that He’s simply taken away our burden. Perhaps the real lightening of our soul happens by walking alongside Him, sharing a yoke under which He does the heavy lifting, but nonetheless joining Him on the cross and in suffering and in death. For that’s what we’ve done in our Baptism, dying with Him so that we might share His Sabbath rest in the tomb, where all suffering and pain was finally gone, and then bursting forth from that tomb by rising with Him on Easter Day through Baptism. That’s the lightweight burden He’s put on us.
In Psalm 42 David ached in his heart when he remembered the joys of God’s house, and he sought relief from that ache by returning there to give God praise. So also when Jesus calls us to come to Him, He’s calling us to worship. He bids us stand with Him before the altar in God’s house while He praises and thanks His Father and reveals His loving heart to us. And He invites us to our find rest in Him. How that rest becomes ours He reveals in the very next story in Matthew’s Gospel. Uniquely among the Evangelists, Matthew uses Jesus’ call to rest to introduce the incident of plucking grain on the sabbath. And so the story, which in Mark’s Gospel explains the Pharisees’ desire to put Jesus to death for seemingly despising God’s Law, in Matthew’s reckoning that story tells us something more deeply about Jesus. Jesus proclaims that the Sabbath was never really about resting from work—it was about finding true, eternal rest in Him. The disciples couldn’t be faulted for eating grains of wheat on the Sabbath because they were with Him. And that’s what the Sabbath was always about, eating with Jesus, the Man of Rest.
Jesus stands today before you and lifts up your prayer and praise to His Father. He invites you to come to Him and unload your weary burdens on His broad shoulders while He, in turn, offers you the lightest of loads: the food of eternal life. Here is your Sabbath. The rest you need is found by plucking this grain and eating it with Him. “Come to Me, all [you] who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 11:28). Amen