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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

July 6, 2014

 Invitation to Life

Genesis 24:42-51; Matthew 11:25-30

              Paul Tillich grew up in Germany, the son of a Lutheran pastor. At the age of twelve, like all good Lutheran boys and girls, after going through an intensive three-year process leading up to confirmation, it was the expectation that every child making a confession of faith in confirmation would stand up and recite before the congregation a verse of scripture. Tillich was handsome, blond, tall, athletic and brilliant. He stood up that morning and said those words we read from Jesus, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart and you shall find rest unto your souls for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Afterwards, a woman came up to young Paul and said, “What would you, at the age of twelve, know about being burdened and laden with cares, and why would you offer a verse like that of all the verses in the Bible?” And from the vantage point of old age looking back, Paul Tillich said, “I realized the rightness of that choice I made at the tender age of twelve.”

             I sat yesterday with Regen Jewett’s mother and sister, along with Adam, and we listened to her talk about losing a twenty-six-year-old son, suddenly, surprisingly, with no warning, no expectation that this would ever happen, and I thought again of how deeply, how desperately we need above all the other things that we need, Jesus and His word. These words of Jesus are words for all people in all times, in all circumstances, everywhere around this world. I don’t expect to exhaust the richness, the fullness, the depth, the height of these words of Jesus this morning, but let’s just listen for the few moments we have here to the three verbs that Jesus offers in this best of all of His sayings.

             The first word is the word ‘Come.’ “Come unto me.” It is a word of invitation, a word of welcome, a word of hospitality. It is an invitation extended as wide as the reach of Jesus’ arms on the cross. “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” To be human, to be alive, to live your life on this place we call earth is to be no stranger to weariness, to restlessness, to sorrow and to sadness, to heartache and to loss. Jesus knows that. He lived here as well, inside the same human skin where we dwell. Indeed, He blessed being human forever. Jesus knows our every weakness, and in the face of it, He extends the invitation to “Come unto me.” The offer that Jesus makes is the offer of His very self, that by who He is you may make better sense and find more strength for who it is that you are to be.

             That word ‘all’ is a powerful word; it corresponds with the word that Jesus offered at the beginning of the prayer that He taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “When you pray, pray like this: ‘Our Father.’” Jesus came to bless the whole human family. This wasn’t His new idea, it was the idea of Israel from the beginning when Abraham was blessed so that through his family God might “bless all the families of the earth.” Psalm 145:14 says, “The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.” The heart of the Gospel says, “God so loved the world.” And the reason Jesus is such a compelling figure still is because He speaks that word, that invitation, that welcome to the whole human family. He says, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”

             The second word Jesus speaks is the word ‘take.’ “Take my yoke upon you.” A yoke is a word that is associated with work, with bearing burdens, with toil and sweat. And some people say, “Well, what I don’t need is a yoke, Jesus, I need a vacation, I need a break from life.” But you know this, and I know it as well: when you are human, you bear burdens, when you are alive, you experience sorrow and sadness and heartache and heartbreak and loss. When Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you,” in a sense, He is acknowledging that life is not easy for any of us, that we all have burdens to bear. We all have sorrows that we carry through this life, some that never completely go away from us. If we are really alive and really honest about being human fully, we know this. The richness of the word ‘yoke’ is that while a yoke is associated with toil and labor, the purpose of a yoke is to share the burden. And when Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you,” Jesus is inviting you to share the burden of life with Him. He is inviting you to be a yoked partner with Him in life. He is inviting you to live life in relationship, in connection, in partnership with Him. In some ways that runs counter to the spirit of this age where we want to say, “I’m the captain of my ship. I’m the master of my life. I’m a free agent; let me live the life that I want to live.”

             But do you know what I have found? When I am unyoked from Jesus, I get weary, I get overwhelmed, and I get lost. I suspect all of us know that feeling of how much a burden it is when we imagine that somehow we can make it on our own, that we don’t need God’s help, God’s companionship and God’s partnership. When Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you,” it is an invitation to be yoked to Jesus, to decide from this point on, “I’m not going to live my life as if it is my own life to do with however I will, but I am going to live my life like I belong, in life and in death, not to myself but to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” And being yoked with Jesus is not just the best way that I know to live, it is the only way worth living.

             It is as if Jesus were saying, “Live your life in tandem with me. Work alongside of me. Watch for the way that I live, and listen for the words that I offer. Live your life in partnership.” “Take my yoke upon you.” You know this, don’t you? When burdens are shared they become lighter. And who here wants to bear their burdens without Jesus helping to make the burden lighter, more manageable, more the size that we somehow, someway can handle? So Jesus says, “Come.” It is a word of invitation. He says, “Take my yoke upon you.”

             And I think that is a wonderful image for relationships as well – to see ourselves yoked to the people that we are called by God to love. Some people talk about marriage as “a ball and a chain,” and I hate that image. The powerful image of marriage as being yoked to someone – that will preach! That is why Jesus quoted from the book of Genesis twice in the Gospels: “A man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave unto his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Jesus was talking about the power of man and woman being yoked together in the covenant of marriage. It is not a ball and chain; it is a way to share the burdens of life and to bear them more graciously because we bear one another’s burdens, and “so fulfill the law of love.” We are in this together. And Jesus wants us to know, “I am in this with you, and I want you more than anything else to live your life yoked to me.” One more word about yokes: A yoke is used in motion; you wear a yoke to move forward. It is only in following Jesus that you will learn who He is.

             Finally, one last word. It is the word ‘learn.’ “Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you shall find rest unto your souls.” This is the best invitation of all that Jesus offers. The invitation to admit that we don’t know it all, that we don’t have it all together, that we haven’t arrived yet – none of us have, none of us are the people that we know God has put it in us to become. But we have this invitation from Jesus to be learners all of our days. I will never forget it – when I arrived to do graduate study at Edinburgh University, I had a wonderful friend who worked at Saint Cuthbert’s Church with me, where I was called in a wonderful British phrase, “the student attachment.” (Isn’t that a British way to put things?!) Well, there was this young pastor a few years older than I was, who was named Andrew Thomas Bruce McGowen. (Do you think he was Scottish?!) I kept noticing these cars around Edinburgh with this huge red block letter ‘L’ on the bumper. I thought at first that maybe it was British Leland, because they made a lot of cars back in those days, when they still existed. But I noticed them on Fords and Fiats and all cars in between. So one day, I asked Andy, “What does that red block letter ‘L’ mean?” Andy was amused. (He always was amused by what Americans didn’t know.) He said, “Oh, it means ‘learner.’ We realized a long time ago that when someone is learning to drive it’s good to alert everybody else to that fact.” And I have thought ever since, “Shouldn’t we all place a big red letter ‘L’ upon our hearts that says to everybody, ‘I’m still learning. I’m still a student’?” ‘Student’ is the word ‘disciple’ literally means. “I am a student in the school of Jesus, who was meek and lowly of heart and can offer us rest unto our restless souls.” And do any of us think that we have learned enough about what it means to follow Jesus, to live like Jesus, to act like Jesus, to love like Jesus?

             Eugene Peterson put together this wonderful book called, The Message. Have some of you seen The Message? It is his paraphrase of the Bible. Eugene Peterson is a graduate of my seminary, and worked in a small Presbyterian new church development that never grew beyond two hundred members outside of Washington, DC. But the whole time he read and he studied and he thought about scripture. And then he wrote this paraphrase of the Bible out of the richness of his soul called, The Message. Ironically, it made Eugene Peterson a spectacularly wealthy person – I say ironically because he doesn’t care about money at all. He moved back to Montana, to the area where he grew up, and he has been giving his money away ever since. But he paraphrased this magnificent passage of Jesus, and I want you to listen to Peterson’s take on Jesus’ words: “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.”

             Connie and I have been away for a few weeks – and thank you for the great gift of time in order to do that! At the end of our trip we met the boys in Barcelona where we had never before been. The first thing we did when they arrived was to take a walk. (I had no idea how long the walk was going to be!) But we began our walk at a church in Barcelona called, Sagrada Família. Have some of you traveled to Barcelona and seen Sagrada Família? It was started in the 1880’s when a thirty-one-year-old architect by the name of Antoni Gaudí began to envision a church, Sagrada Família, which is Spanish for Holy Family, that would witness to all of Catalonian Spain, and all the world, about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Gaudí was a devout Christian. He went to mass twice a day, every day of his life, to begin the day and to end the day. And from the age of thirty-one until the age of seventy-two when he was hit by a streetcar in Barcelona and killed, he worked and poured his life into the cathedral that is still unfinished, known as Sagrada Família. I love what he said when people asked, “Are you ever going to finish this?” He said, “My client is God, and my client is not in a hurry.” The first façade he finished – those remarkable four towers that look like a sandcastle in stone – is to the Nativity, the birth of Jesus. And the last four to be completed – there are eighteen in all when it is finally finished – are to the death of Jesus. And right in the middle of it, completed in 1986 by a Spanish sculptor, is Jesus hanging on the cross. It is cubist, so it is kind of controversial. Jesus is totally naked, obviously a man, once again a source of controversy, but it is a beautiful sculpture. Jesus’ head is hanging down, and as you look at His head you see that it is also in the shape of an open Bible because, of course, the Bible says that Jesus is the Word of God.

             I love how The Theological Declaration of Barmen puts it, that document written by Karl Barth, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a part of the group that composed this when Germany was being torn apart by hatred and bigotry. They needed Jesus more than they needed anything else. So these confessing Christians wrote: “Jesus, as attested in the Scriptures, is the one word of God which we have to hear, and which we have to trust and obey, in life and in death.” And Jesus, that one word of God, says to you today, “Come unto me. Take my yoke upon you. Learn of me.” There is nothing more wonderful and nothing more important that we have to learn!

                                                                                     Amen.

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