There is something utterly compelling about the words of Jesus today. Perhaps like me, the language of the King James Version of the Bible still resonates with you? The Lord says, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest”. (Matthew 11.25-30)
Down the generations these particular words have remained a source of great comfort for the sensitive soul. In a sense, they illustrate what we mean when the lesson reader says, “This is the Word of the Lord”. Because somehow these words of Jesus (and there are many other examples) address us directly. This invitation is personal. We’re given a gateway into the Lord’s presence and we recognise in him, one who looks upon us with a mercy beyond our comprehension or perhaps our expectation?
What’s revealed to us here is that we are understood. Like that friend who recognises our weariness and says, “Sit down while I put the kettle on”, there is grace here. We are simply identified as those who are burdened and labouring our way through life. This is why I keep on saying that when it comes to praying and when it comes to entering into what happens here Sunday by Sunday; it matters (as we might say) “who you think you’re talking to”.
Back in the sixteenth century, St. Ignatius of Loyola said: “A step or two before the place where I am to contemplate or meditate, I will stand for the space of an Our Father (as long as it takes to say the Lord’s Prayer) and, with my consciousness raised on high, consider how the Lord my God looks upon me. Then I will make an act of reverence or humility” (Spiritual Exercises, #75).
Before beginning to pray, St. Ignatius instructs us to “consider how the Lord my God looks upon me.” He has internalised that essential invitation which we hear in today’s Gospel: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest”. So, he points out that our prayer and worship will begin firstly by becoming aware that God is already there waiting for us and beholding us. He is already there in the room looking at us, inviting us. And as the Father of the Prodigal Son, he is always, I repeat always waiting for us to return the gaze and become present to him.
So, the first thing for us to pray with this morning is this invitation; this gracious and compassionate gaze in which we are held. It is true wherever we are, and whatever we’re doing. But it’s a good and helpful practice to acknowledge it when we consciously turn to prayer. As the words of the hymn has it:
Just as I am, though tossed about
With many a conflict, many a doubt
Fightings and fears within without
O Lamb of God, I come.
The second thing for us to ponder is what Jesus says next. Because he isn’t quite finished, is he? Jesus goes on to say, “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.” What I mean is, that deeply moving invitation from the Lord is followed by something which gives the lie to any thought that he’s only in the business of offering a divine, “There, there” to our latest bruising. Jesus does not offer mere sticking plaster for life’s wounds; nor a programme for self-improvement. He presents us with a much better way. He invites us to explore how our life walked ‘in tandem’ with him, can become an altogether less anxious and wearisome affair.
The key word here is, “Yoke”. Just as Oxen were bound together with a yoke (perhaps Jesus had a hand in making some in Joseph’s workshop?), so the Jewish people considered themselves yoked or ‘joined’ to God’s law. The point was always; since we are God’s people how then will we live? To which the answer was “Observe God’s Law”; let him set the agenda and give shape to your life.
Now the startling, if not brazen thing which Jesus is doing, is putting himself in the place of the Law. In other words, God’s law will be fulfilled as we come to live in tandem with him. ‘Yoked’ to him. But of course, living the Christ-shaped life is not something which we can do on our own; it happens as we welcome, receive and cooperate with his Holy Spirit. So, this morning I just want to point out how this business of being ‘yoked’ to Jesus is fundamental. This is why I wear this stole Sunday by Sunday. Church tradition has always sought to turn the priest into a sort of visual aid; a mannequin or illustration of what’s true for each one of us. We’re all yoked to Christ.
So, take two things from this. Firstly, wearing the Yoke is about learning a better way. It means saying a daily ‘yes’ to his invitation. ‘Yes’ to the one who is gentle and humble in heart; and ‘yes’ to the good work he has begun in us. Secondly therefore, remember that the Christian never flies solo. I said a moment ago that it matters “who you think you’re talking to”.
We often hear politicians say that they’ve been out and about “talking to people” don’t we? But I often think it would be far better for them to say, “talking with people”. There is a difference. In the same way, how would it be if our praying became much more a matter of talking ‘with’ God. If only to remind us of how important it is to leave room for listening. Leaving ourselves open to his insight and perspective?
So yes, the Lord, in some of his most moving words invites us to ‘come to’ him. Yes, we are loved beyond measure. Yes, our Lord knows how burdened and ‘heavy laden’ we can be. But he also seems to know just how much of our burden carrying and weariness can be put down to our being ‘yoked’ to the wrong things. Maybe there are misplaced attachments that we need to shed?
So, the direction of travel is this. He loves us as we are but does not want us to stay as we are. The work of the Holy Spirit will constantly lead us into something far better. A yoke that is easy and a burden that is light; a life in tandem with him; far less anxious and wearisome.