Fifth Weekend After Pentecost (A/RCL): "A Yoke Lined in Love"
Zechariah 9:9-12; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
July 8-9, 2017
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ
There are double-sided billboards that always catch my eye on the Turnpike, both north-and-southbound, near Newark Airport. The one I saw yesterday says: “Read the Bible: Truth, Wisdom, Hope.” Having seen other billboards sponsored by that organization, I know I interpret the Bible differently; but I do agree we find truth, wisdom and hope in God’s Word. Traveling in the opposite direction on the way home I saw the flip side of the “Read the Bible” message: beautiful clouds, fierce flames and the pointed question, “Are you going to heaven or hell?” -- I’m guessing that drive-by shot at evangelism is well-intentioned but a real non-starter for inviting someone to faith.
That’s where interpreting the Bible differently comes in. The Bible depicts God in many different ways. I was listening to someone being interviewed on the radio who talked about Jesus religiously hanging out with the irreligious crowd, those from whom “decent” citizens kept their distance: tax collectors like Zacchaeus and Matthew, a Samaritan woman at the well, a woman caught in adultery, a woman with a flow of blood, a Roman centurion. His first question to them was not, “Are you going to heaven or hell?” He met them where they were at and reached out to them right where He found them.
Our first lesson from Zechariah talks about a king, a messiah, who arrives on the scene “triumphant and victorious”:
Shout and cheer, Daughter Zion!
Raise the roof, Daughter Jerusalem!
Your king is coming!
a good king who makes all things right,
a humble king riding on a donkey,
a mere colt of a donkey.
Zechariah 9:9, The Message
Can’t you just picture the people laying their cloaks on the road as a makeshift royal runner, and waving palm branches before him?? This is the Scripture quoted by each of the 4 evangelists to describe our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Have you ever wondered, “What’s the deal with the donkey?” The idea is: it is not a warhorse! At times a victorious general would ride into a conquered city on a donkey instead of a steed, sending the message, “I come in peace.”
If you’ve seen Les Mis, you’ll remember the Bishop of Digne, the compassionate and holy man who welcomed the ex-convict Jean Valjean into his home to spend the night. Valjean returned that kindness by stealing the Bishop’s silver and fleeing. When he was caught by the gendarmes (the police) and brought back to face the Bishop, he expected to be sent back to the galleys. Instead, the Bishop told a white lie, saying he’d given Valjean the silver; then he chided him for forgetting to take the candlesticks as well! He didn’t ask Valjean, “Are you going to heaven or hell??” He simply and caringly said, “Remember, I have ransomed your soul for God.”
A lovely sidenote in Victor Hugo’s book that didn’t make it into the play or the movie is a description of the Bishop (whose nickname was Monsieur Bienvenu! Mr. Welcome!) riding a donkey into the surrounding countryside to visit the ill and homebound. His council of advisors called him in to discuss his mode of transportation. He began the meeting with a pre-emptive apology for what he said might look like his arrogance or lack of humility in using the same mode of transportation as our Lord! (Actually, the lay people wanted to complain that they didn’t want their Bishop demeaning himself by riding a beast of burden!) I’d say that was a man after Christ’s own heart!
In the passage from Zechariah we heard the Lord’s promise,
“I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”
Our king who comes in peace, who once came riding on a donkey, had read this from the prophet Isaiah during His inaugural sermon preached in his hometown synagogue of Nazareth at the beginning of His public ministry a few years prior:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners….
In Holy Baptism we are freed from our human bondage to sin and death, and freed for grateful lives of love and service. God already loves Brendan and Logan, being baptized this weekend, more than words can say. They were imagined by God before they were ever conceived; they’ve been swept up in God’s embrace from all eternity. Now in the saving flood and holy anointing of Baptism they will also be mysteriously joined to our Lord’s death and resurrection, sealed with the Holy Spirit, marked with the cross of Christ forever.
Today’s Gospel gives us another beautiful image as well. In Holy Baptism we become yoked to Christ. We recently sang a song that said, “We know the yoke of sin and death, our necks have worn it smooth.” We hear “yoke” and probably picture a pair of oxen. POW’s, slaves, not just draft animals, were also made to wear yokes. But a fellow named Matthew Henry wrote that Christ’s yoke is “easy” for it is “lined with love.”1 A compassionate farmer would tailor the yoke to a particular animal’s neck, so it would not chafe. God tailors the yoke to the individual disciple, so that we are always in step with our Savior, never pulling any load entirely by ourselves, but always divinely assisted by our Lord.
The king who arrived on the donkey took on a heavy burden of sin that rightly belonged to us, not to Him. But He labored in love and obedience to lift that weight from us. In turn, He places upon us a yoke of love. What seems like a burden to us, what feels like a curse, may by God’s grace be a blessing in disguise. There is an old story that birds were first created without wings. When God added wings, they complained about the extra weight they had to carry around – until they realized that wings allowed them to fly. Their “burden” was actually a blessing.
Sometimes the distance between heaven and hell is as short or as long as the time it takes us to see our lives through God’s eyes, to recognize that what we thought of as an added burden (the straw that’s going to break the camel’s back) is a blessing instead, that the yoke we feared would enslave us is intended to free us, that the Savior of the world has never been any general on a war horse but only the humble Man on a donkey. Here is the paraphrase of His last words from today’s Gospel:
“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
Matt. 11:28-30 The Message
Experiencing heaven on earth….
1Interpreter’s Bible (vol. 7; NY: Abingdon. 1951), p. 391.
Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham