“Autumn Brings…Comfort” (Part Three)
Isaiah 40: 1-5 & Matthew 11:25-30
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ October 7, 2018
I have a friend who consults in the agricultural industry in the area of robotics. In the near future, he tells me there will be little robots tirelessly working in the fields weeding and seeding and tending to the growing crops while farmers monitor their progress from the comfort of their homes. This will revolutionize the industry: it will diminish the work required by human hands; it will reduce the amount of pesticides required to protect the harvest. Tiny robots doing the work formerly done by human and animal.
As hard as it might be for us to conceptualize robots working in the farming fields, it may equally be challenging for us to consider the image of an animal being yoked to a plough for farming. In the Gospel teaching we find in Matthew, Jesus uses the image of ‘taking my yoke upon you’. In this practice, a farmer would hitch a plough onto a work horse who would pull it along thereby allowing the sharp plough to dig into the soil and prepare it for planting. The farmer would do the job of steering the plough in the proper direction and the animal would provide the power pulling the heavy plough through the soil, preparing it for spring planting. The farmer would steer in a straight direction and the animal would bear the load and do the pulling. And after all the work…and the labour…and the rains and the growth…eventually the fall harvest would come in…and it would be a time of thanksgiving.
In this text, Jesus is speaking metaphorically ~ speaking of much more than an agricultural lifestyle. We don’t really know how much knowledge he had of farming ~ scripture records agrarian-based parables, but in terms of specifics, Jesus is silent. Legend has it that Jesus was trained as a carpenter, though he didn’t seem to stay in a particular area for any too long to develop a business in this area either. What we do see Jesus teaching speaking a lot about was life, and how to live well, and how righteous living might allow for the unfolding of God’s Kin-dom. Jesus says “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me”. Jesus was a teacher. And in this passage, Jesus is causing us to consider what ‘yokes’ we take on in our journey; he is inquiring about what burdens we carry; what mission are we passionate about; what is it that gets our legs over the bed in the morning. Or in farming terms: what does the yoke look like that you pull behind you in your day?
When we think on this…we all pull something don’t we? We are all hitched with a metaphorical yoke and carry burdens behind us. The question is: ‘what is it that we pull?’ It might be the yoke of family ~ our determination to support children. It might be the yoke of community ~ the work we do in the community. It might be the yoke of our profession ~ the drive to contribute and make a difference, the drive to be the best, to achieve the corner office. Sometimes the yoke might accompany some challenges and past demons that continue ~ the yoke of guilt / the yoke of depression or anxiety / the yoke of feeling alone or neglected. If you were to look behind yourself and consider what ‘yoke’ it is that you drag behind…what would you see? What does your ‘yoke’ look like these days?
In the text, Jesus is encouraging his listeners into this kind of evaluation in their living. In the past, the yoke that people had been taking on was called: ‘the yoke of the Pharisees’. At the time, these religious leaders were known for laying down a heavy burden upon followers. The Jewish law and all its commandments were constantly pushed as the way to have a right relationship with God. The way one would truly become wise was understood to be that of living in fear of God; living a pious life and devoting oneself to learning the law. Biblical scholar, NT Wright, noted that it was as unlikely for the average Jew to ever attain wisdom. He says that it was as likely for them to attain wisdom as it was for us to become a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon.
By way of contrast, Jesus offers a different kind of yoke: the yoke of Jesus’ Way. Jesus says: “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. Jesus offers two descriptions of his yoke: it is easy and it is light. For a farmer, a yoke that is “easy” is one that does not chafe the animal and is thus gentle as it sits on the animals shoulders. When the yoke is adjusted carefully and kindly, it distributes the weight of the load evenly. The yoke does not dig into the animal’s hide and the animal is enabled to pull the load in a way that is manageable. “My yoke is easy”. As you think of the yoke you carry…do you need to adjust the way you carry the yoke in your living? Is it digging into your flesh? Is it causing harm in your soul? Is the yoke you carry one that is manageable and “easy”?
Apart from saying his yoke is “easy”, Jesus also said that “my yoke is light”. He does not say that if we follow him we will be free of burdens to carry. He says that these burdens will be manageable ~ he says they will be easy. And their content will be light. On the one hand, we might look at that as referring to the weight of the burden. A lighter weight will certainly be easier to bear than one that is heavy. “my yoke is light”. But I also wonder if it has a dual meaning…does it also refer to the nature of the burden that we will carry. It will not be one of darkness, pain or suffering. The burdens we are called to carry when we follow Jesus’ way are ones that offer light. Just as Jesus is the light of the world, we are also to be light bearers to others. Does the yoke you carry bear light to others? Does the yoke you carry bear light to your own soul? Every so often, we need to reassess the yoke that we pull in this life. To ensure that it is truly what we are called to pull; to ensure that it is manageable; to ensure that it bears light.
One of the parts of the teaching that I think can be very helpful in our discernment is Jesus’ call for us to learn from him. The text continues: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me”. In this teaching, he is saying more than for us to just listen…or seek to become a version of Jesus…it is a call to become ‘like him’. It is an invitation to become akin to a ‘student’ or an ‘apprentice’. To consider how your unique gifts are ones which allow you to bear your unique yoke and share your unique light. There is an assurance that in our living and our struggling that all will be well.
This passage makes a nice parallel here with the Isaiah passage. In Isaiah’s context, we are listening in on the hope that the Israelites needed when they could not see a way home. In the wilderness time after their escape from Egypt, they could not see a straight path that led to the Promised Land. The deep valleys they lived in…the steep mountains in front of them…the rough ground that was so difficult to walk. All these many factors made it so profoundly difficult to navigate their way home to the land of promise. Yet…there was, for them, in this time, a time of deep hope: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain”.
And so, on this thanksgiving Sunday, as we consider how God’s presence of comfort is found in our living and our serving, may we be assured of a God who comforts us in our struggles, who guides us in the right path…who guides us…home.