READ : Matthew 11:28-30
Listen today to some of the most comfortable words ever spoken — not comfortable as in “soft” or “easy;” comfortable as in “full of comfort.”
The communion service in the old Book of Common Prayer calls the worshiper to confess his sins to Almighty God before coming to receive the sacrament. Then following the prayer of confession the minister pronounces words of assurance that our sins are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. The biblical texts proclaiming forgiveness are introduced with this sentence, “Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ speaks to all who truly turn to him.” And then the minister quotes, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Comfortable words, indeed. Not comfortable as in “easy, relaxing, soft”; comfortable in the old-fashioned English sense of the word, as in “full of comfort.”
“I Am Gentle and Lowly”
These comfortable words come at the end of Matthew 11, where Jesus has just been talking about the way people are responding to him. Jesus is approaching a turning point in his ministry. Up to now he has been traveling throughout the length and breadth of Galilee, preaching and teaching and healing. His ministry has been open to the public, focused on the crowds. But now, increasingly, Jesus will focus instead on his small band of disciples??”the committed few. He will begin to concentrate on teaching them who he is and what his true mission will be. He will prepare them for their role in carrying the gospel??”the message about himself, in particular about his saving death and resurrection??”out to the ends of the earth. Here at the end of chapter 11 Jesus expresses his sorrow over the lack of response among his own people in Galilee, the very people he had come to save, and he warns them of coming judgment (vv. 20-24).
And then Jesus makes this amazing statement.
At that time Jesus declared, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Okay, let’s see if we got that right. Jesus starts out by claiming??”apparently quite matter of factly??”that he is the world’s only source for the knowledge of God. “No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Do you want to know God, to understand what God is like, to have a relationship with him? Well then, says Jesus, you’ll have to go through me. No one anywhere can know God except those to whom I make him known. God has entrusted everything to me.
And then in the next breath, in what seems like an incredible contradiction, Jesus says that he is the most gentle and lowly of men. Now why doesn’t that strike us as bizarre? What is it about this man that makes both of these claims??”the claim to supremacy and the claim to humility??”ring true? You would think that Jesus would be remembered as one of the great egomaniacs in human history, but he’s not. When he says that he alone knows God and can make God known, I (and not only I) find it easy to believe he is telling the truth. Yet when he adds that he is gentle and humble in heart, Jesus is equally believable.
The only explanation is that Jesus is both the Son of God and the perfect man, at one and the same time the greatest??”and the humblest??”person who ever lived. And nowhere is the beauty of his character more fittingly expressed than in these words of comfort that he spoke to those who were weary and burdened with the cares of life: “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest. . . . learn from me . . . and you will find rest for your souls.”
An Invitation with Promise
Let’s think a little more about the comfortable words themselves. Notice that Jesus here combines an invitation with a promise. The invitation is expressed in three verbs: come, take and learn; “Come to me . . . take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” You know, I wonder if these words are too familiar, if we’ve lost the ability to be astonished by them. Jesus’ whole invitation is focused upon himself. He doesn’t say, “Come to God”; he says, “Come to me.” He doesn’t say, “Take God’s yoke upon you. Start obeying him.” He says, “Take mine. Obey me.”
Other religions and their prophets point people toward God; Jesus invites people to come to him, and put their hope and trust in him. “Put my yoke on you and learn from me.” Everybody has to wear some kind of yoke. “Ya gotta serve somebody,” as Bob Dylan sang. But Jesus’ yoke is easy. Believing in him leads to truth, serving him leads to freedom, dying with him leads to life.
Notice this too about Jesus’ invitation. It’s addressed only to a certain kind of person. He’s speaking to those who are struggling, to folks who are having a hard time of it, to people who are weighed down and finding the going tough. “All who labor and are heavy laden,” Jesus says. That means people who really feel the heavy loads that they are carrying. You know, there are different sorts of loads, loads of guilt, of worry, of fear, of grief, of shame. It doesn’t really matter what kind of load you might be carrying. Whatever it is, Jesus invites you to come. Of course, if you don’t feel any particular need, you probably won’t bother. There’s a reason why more poor people become Christians than rich ones. It’s the same reason more sick people go to the doctor than healthy ones. If you think you’re doing just fine in your life all by yourself and on your own, if you don’t need anybody’s help at all, thank you very much, then you probably aren’t interested in Jesus.
The thing is, it takes real humility to come to him. Just as Jesus calls himself “lowly in heart,” so only those who are willing to humble themselves, to become lowly in their own estimation, and admit their need, can respond to his invitation. If you are bound and determined to have it your own way, to make your own rules, to run your own life without interference from God or anybody else, then you will just have to go on carrying your burdens all alone.
In Bethlehem the Church of the Holy Nativity marks the spot??”so it is claimed??”of Jesus’ birth. It’s a place that bears little resemblance today to what Jesus’ actual birthplace must have looked like. But the builders of this ancient church did get one detail right. The original door to the church is only four feet high. Unless you are a little child, you can only come to worship Christ by bending low. The only way in is on your knees.
But now listen to the promise. If you do come, if you are willing to get low, if you will give up your self-sufficiency, admit your need, and trust in Christ, then he will give you rest. A while back I noticed a tabloid magazine that carried this headline: “The Spirit of Elvis Helps Fans Get Good Luck, Health and $$$.” The subtitle explained, “How to get ‘the King’ to work for you.” I suspect that for many people, this describes the way they approach religion. Millions of people think the purpose of faith is to get good luck. Prayer is the way you “make the King work for you.” For many religion is a kind of transaction??”we behave and God delivers. Our end of the bargain is to be pretty good people. God’s responsibility is to then reward us by giving us blessings, especially money, good health, happiness.
Does Christianity really work that way? If you think so, I’m afraid you’re in for a big disappointment. Because, you see, the truth is, we are all just heavy-laden beggars. The best we can do is to come humbly to Christ. The most we can ask for is relief. But the good news is that, if you do that, he will always give it to you. Christ receives all who will come to him in repentance and faith. But he only promises to give you one thing. He doesn’t promise health or wealth or guaranteed success. He doesn’t promise instant blessings. If you come to him you may find trouble and sorrow and loss. But he does promise this: he promises rest. “Come to me, and you will find rest for your souls.” This rest that Christ promises means that here and now we can have peace in our weary and restless hearts, and forgiveness that’s real, and the assurance that we are loved and accepted by God, and the certainty that our lives have meaning and purpose. And in the world to come we will have life everlasting.
What is wealth or fame compared to this rest?