The following sermon was preached by Dr Harold Ristau in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in celebration of the Festival of St Matthias, Apostle, 24 February 2022.
The Yoke’s on You (Matthew 11:25-30)
As you know, a yoke is the bar across the back of a cow or donkey that allows it to carry weights. It has to do with carrying heavy things. So, “yoke” is a word used of the Law. Jesus Himself had shown the heaviness of the burdens that the Law brings in all those parts of the Sermon on the Mount that make it clear that we cannot keep the Law and carry its demands no matter how hard we try. And only in the trying, only in the labouring at it, do we feel how heavy the load is; a load we cannot bear. We can’t qualify for God’s favour by our performance in keeping His commandments. We are sinners.
If being a Christian is something that makes you groan, you’ve probably got it wrong. Burdens are for groaning under, and burdens are what Jesus takes away as He says in our Gospel. If you have burdens, then it is to you that Jesus calls: “Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me.”
Jesus bids us in these Gospel words to come to Him and bring our heavy load, and give over all of our labouring to justify ourselves (all that yoke of the Law) to Him. He relieves us of all that. He carries that yoke for us, for on Him is laid the burden of the iniquity of us all. Death and its curse. Jesus dies in our place. The forsakenness of God, which is for our sin, He takes in our place, for He is the sin-bearer for us all, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. In fact, the stole that the pastor wears represents your yoke that Jesus bears for you. The pastor is God’s presence in your midst in divine service as Jesus continues to serve you, through them, by forgiving all your sins (+), i.e. taking away your burdensome yoke.
In exchange for the yoke He takes, is a yoke He gives. But it is a happy exchange: “Jesus, I am your sin; You are my righteousness.” The heavy bar is replaced with a light one; the yoke of the law with the yoke of the Gospel. And what a yoke that is! His yoke is easy, and “burden” is light. And what is light is no burden, and what is easy is no yoke.
We know this is from the cross. It is the heavy death for sin, the forsakenness of God, but it becomes Christ’s. And all the lightness and peace which is Christ’s, becomes ours. It is how you feel when the heavy pack after a long hike home and after a hard day of work comes off, and your back can’t believe the ease and the lightness of walking. And when you put that pack back on, it is empty! All the weight of our sin, spiritual stress and anxieties, Jesus lifts away, to the cross, never to disturb or weigh you down again. “Lift up your hearts”, the pastor says at the altar, “for your backpack is being emptied: rather being filled with peace and lightness through the forgiveness of sins given for you”. At the cross, Jesus exchanges yokes with us. And the yoke that is ours, from Him, is easy and light.
Today we remember St Matthias. He was one of the 72 sent out by Jesus after His ascension. After Judas, the betrayer, hanged himself, the apostles needed a replacement and this is the one whom the Holy Spirit chose. A switch was made between this unbelieving imposter apostle—who not only betrayed Jesus for 30 coins but doubted Jesus’ authority from the beginning—and the believing and faithful disciple and martyr Matthias, who, after many missionary endeavours, ended up being beheaded for the faith. The good switches places with the bad. And so it is with us! Yet, we are the bad, and Jesus is the good. Like Judas, we have betrayed out Lord in more ways than we can count, and yet Jesus switches places with us under the judgement that we deserve. Because of our sin and rebellion against God—which is not hard to find, as we confessed earlier—we are as guilty before the courts of heaven as Judas. But God has had mercy on us and Jesus has taken our place for our spiritual crimes against God and humanity. These crimes deserved not only 25 years of imprisonment, but execution; and yet Jesus took our place in the dock, willingly giving His life on the cross, so we could be declared by heaven as “not guilty” (+). The fancy theological term for that: Justification.
In holy Baptism you are declared Not Guilty. In holy Absolution: not guilty. In the Holy Supper: not guilty. Now you are yoked with Christ, as was Matthias and all the other holy and blessed disciples. You are free from the yoke of your sin and guilt.
And yet, still there is a yoke, however light, for a disciple of Jesus. The cross of Christ under which we have freedom and rest (the empty backpack), attracts a lot of enemy attention: from the world, and even our own flesh. In the world we have persecution. St Matthias was beheaded for the Gospel. People still die for the faith around the world. Serving as a chaplain in Iraq, I still remember the accounts of mass graves beside burnt down Christian churches. In Canada it is less obvious, but takes the form of being ostracized by your colleagues, family members or neighbours for believing the right stuff and standing up for Jesus when other reject Him. And this can all feel like a heavy yoke. St Matthias picks up the baton, left fallen by Judas. He picks up the yoke and follows Jesus in, with and through His holy church. Yet he deemed it well worth it, bringing the Gospel to some pretty difficult mission wildernesses, and even to Europe, where he lies at rest today. The switching of yokes is worth giving up your life for the one who gave up His life for the world.
The freedom that Jesus gives is worth the cost. He carried away the weight of our sins to the cross and freed us for our ascent into heaven. And we are now one with Him, in holy Baptism. Yet we move in contradiction of this truth whenever we crawl back under that yoke as if it is still ours to bear. Like a dog returning to its vomit, the old Adam wants to be enslaved once again, without even knowing it!
And so not only persecution happens by the outside world, but also on the inside; we ourselves are our own worst enemies! That which is light, can sometimes be made to feel pretty heavy. Jesus is our rest. Christ comes to bring us rest, but the sinner in us fights against that rest until we die, when our Old Adam is put to rest and our new Adam reigns in glory for ever.
But in the meantime there is a burden that comes with being a Christian, the cost of discipleship: it is the feeling out “of your skin” with the new you of Baptism, the “collateral damage” of this internal spiritual war.
Sometimes it takes the form of the pride we take in ourselves for carrying our yoke or cross, instead of letting God bear it. So the moans and groans that we hear coming from us in the Christian walk are often the sounds of us trying to carry it alone; of us believing we can stand under the Law. We never succeed. Trying to fulfil the law, being a righteous person outside of Christ will always disappoint and crush. Especially when we think we can. We get crushed to death so slowly that we don’t even know its happening! For we go everywhere else for rest, thinking we are so wise, smarter than God and His Word. We feel tired of the good ol’ Bible, liturgy, sacraments, hymns and preaching of the Gospel of Christ crucified, Bible, sacraments. The Old flesh and devil are always “tired” of the means of grace. Se we try to find rest elsewhere: not necessarily in other religions, but in false expressions of the Christian faith: motivational seminars or speakers of other denominations, the newest of Christian books advertised on Christian radio where you will often only get more and more principles for living, spiritual rules, and heavier yokes that surpass the laws of the monks of old. “Do more of this; act more like this; be more like this” … and the more tired you get. We even make our own yokes when we misunderstand God’s Word, and take His Gospel invitations as laws. We treat words such as “Come to Me” as commands to do, instead of invitations to be done to. In this case, to rest. And so our light yoke we make into a heavier burden than the last one!
“Take my yoke”, is not “do this or that”, but take your cross and follow Him. In other words: pick up your load and cast it upon Jesus: a load which is often hard to let go of. For to come to Christ and go from self is the great cross, which no one dreads more than the person who is seeking to wash away his own sins through his own works, which is the heaviest yoke for the person who wants to give him/herself rest. Yet then you are the worst of slaves.
But if you give up, and hate your sin, and suffer the consequences of coming to Christ and following Him, you will have rest. Attending church, may seem like a burden sometimes, just as a sick patient in the hospital may find surgery a bit painful, laborious, even though it is actually the means of healing, salvation, and rest.
Despite what the old Adam and sinner in us makes of it sometimes, the life of a Christian is not moans and groans. We are no longer weighed down. We ARE already at rest. It takes faith to realize that the “rest” for which we are desperately searching already belongs to us. But it’s true. It is a gift of Jesus. He carried the heavy load of all your burdens—whatever they may be—so that you wouldn’t have to.
You have all read the classic book or seen the movie, “The Wizard of Oz”. Remember Dorothy, and the Scarecrow, and the Lion, and the Tin Man? All are restless as they try to find the Wizard to get the thing that they lack in their lives. The Lion lacks courage (or so he believes), the Tin Man lacks a heart (or so he believes), the Scarecrow lacks a brain (or so he believes), and Dorothy lacks the way home (or so she believes). When finally they reach the Wizard, they realize that what they lacked, they actually didn’t lack at all. That the Scarecrow wouldn’t have made it this far unless he was brave; or the Tin Man wouldn’t have looked after his friends on their journey unless he already had a heart; the same thing with the Scarecrow and his brain; and Dorothy’s way home was her two red shoes on her feet, and she never knew it! But they all lived with a heavy yoke, which was really an illusion, because they already had what they were looking for!
Well in Holy Baptism, God took away your yoke and gave you rest. But unless you believe it, you will live like it wasn’t true. When Dorothy finally realizes and believes the wizard, and she clicks her heels together three times, then she goes happily home and she has rest!… May we not live an illusion, as if Christ didn’t die and take our yoke away at the cross. That would be calling Him a liar. But when we believe His Word, we realize that our heavy yoke has been taken away by Jesus.
For even though it may seem heavy at times (the Christian life feel like a burden, a cross), you are yoked with the sweet yoke of Christ. Don’t let the devil persuade you differently. You are burdened with the light yoke of the everlasting Gospel. You are enslaved with the Word that keeps freeing your soul. If being a “slave” of Christ and carrying the yoke of the cross gives you all this, well then, it is nothing other than total freedom and rest.
Friends in Christ: what is burdening you, right now? What is making you moan and groan? Give it all up to Jesus. A broken and contrite heart he will not despise. Come to the altar, for the light yoke (that he exchanges for your heavy one) awaits you at this restful feast, where He graciously offers you freedom and peace by His flesh and blood, given and shed for you. Amen.