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Wednesday, July 30 2014
Matthew 13:31-33; 44-52; Romans 8:26-39
Let me tell you “about a man who claimed to be the most accurate fortuneteller in the world. A man once came to this fortuneteller and said he had only one real question about his future and that was, “How will my life end?”
The fortuneteller gazed into the crystal ball and then announced, “Your life will end when you die.” Well that’s pretty astute. No wonder he was so accurate.
The man nodded and then said, “Yes, but will I be happy?”
“Ah,” said the fortuneteller, “that has nothing to do with the future but what you do in the present.”
So what do you think? Was that fortuneteller right? Yeah, but not because he was a fortuneteller. He was right simply because he got it right. If you want to be happy – what you do in the present – with the things over which you have some control – will have a lot to do with what tomorrow looks like. And I’ve got to say up front that there are no guarantees – no guarantees that you will be happy. None. And by now you know that I don’t even like to talk about being happy. I would rather talk about joy. Happiness, of course, depends on good things always happening in the right way and at the right time. Whereas joy is an attitude. Joy is an attitude that I can choose to have even when things are not going well.
Attitude is everything. One of my favorite quotes is from Chuck Swindoll who says, “I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% of how I react to it.”
So if joy is an attitude, then being joyful means that I will not let my circumstances determine how I look at life. Rather – what I want to do – what I choose to do – is to let my faith determine how I look at my circumstances. Especially those circumstances over which I have no control.
Because I know – if I were to ask each of you individually – do you want to be happy? You’d say, “Heck, yes!” or words to that effect. Have you ever noticed how some people are rarely, if ever, what we might call happy. There never seems to be any joy in some peoples’ lives. Who wants to hang around with people like that?
It’s like the horse who walked into a bar. And the bar tender asked the horse, “Why the long face?” Folks – let me tell you – as Christians, we don’t have to walk around with long faces. Being a disciple of Jesus Christ is a thing of joy. The Kingdom of God is about joy. It’s about love, it’s about hope – it’s about joy.
So while people are looking for happiness – and often looking in all the wrong places – do you remember the advice that Jesus said about what we are to look for? He said, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness, and” – what? – “all these things” – what things? – “all these things” – all the things that you need – maybe not everything you want – but everything you need, “will be given to you.”
You know, Jesus talked an awful lot about the Kingdom. In our reading from Matthew’s Gospel – and let me interject here that when Matthew talks about the Kingdom of God, he uses the phrase, “the Kingdom of heaven,” – it means the same thing – so five times in our reading today he says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like,” and then goes on to describe what the Kingdom is like.
The Kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed –
– it is like yeast
– it is like a treasure hidden in a field
– it is like a merchant in search of fine pearls
– it is like a net thrown into the sea that catches fish of every kind.
The first thing that we need to see is that life in the Kingdom is a gift. Like a mustard seed – it’s a seed that is planted into our hearts and lives. And it starts off, oh so small. But what happens as that seed is nurtured and watered? It grows. It grows stronger. It develops into a bush that eventually produces more seeds. The point is that it takes time – and it has to be nurtured along the way. That’s what our faith is like. It takes time – it needs to be nurtured along the way.
The problem with us – especially us 21st century Americans – is that we want instant results. We don’t want to wait. We want things to happen on our time table, according to our agenda. We want things now.
For instance, I’ve been golfing since I was sixteen. I don’t play much – I haven’t been out at all this year – so I’ve never gotten very good at it. I’ve taken lessons. Quite a number of years ago, now. Improved my grip – improved my swing – and went out there expecting to hit like, well, at the time Tiger Woods. Truth be told, I feel great if I break 60 – for nine holes. And those of you who golf a lot, you know that that’s not all that good. But I’m going out there on the rare occasion that I do – not to win any prizes – but just for the sheer joy of playing.
Here’s the point. I don’t let golf determine my attitude. I let my attitude determine what kind of golfer I’m going to be. If I really want to be a good golfer – and I don’t have any need to be great golfer – just a good golfer – then I know that I need to give it more time than I’m giving it. You know, maybe someday after I turn 60.
May I suggest to you that when it comes to our lives as disciples of Jesus Christ – when it comes to our faith – when it comes to living a life of joy – the same thing is true. What Jesus is telling us today is that becoming a person of faith – takes time. You need to practice. You need to take some lessons. By the way, that’s what we do around here. We offer lessons here. “The Kingdom of heaven,” Jesus says, “is like a mustard seed.” It starts out small, and grows. You’ve got to give it some time.
And the Kingdom of heaven is like yeast. It has to be kneaded in – it has to be worked in – before the yeast can permeate the entire loaf. We need to give faith the time it needs to grow and develop and mature. Like yeast that permeates the entire loaf, the Kingdom life permeates our entire life. And as that happens, we will start looking at life in a different way. And instead of always wanting to be happy – maybe what we’ll discover instead is the life of joy that Jesus talks about.
You see, the Kingdom that Jesus is talking about is something of great value. It is like a treasure buried in a field. It is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. When these things are found, everything else is sold in order to obtain those treasures.
Understand that Jesus is not saying here that we can purchase the Kingdom. We cannot buy our way into heaven. How can you buy something that is given to you as a gift? He’s merely comparing the value of the Kingdom of God – comparing it to everything else in life that we value.
If the first two stories about mustard seeds and yeast tell us something about what God does for us – then these next two stories tell us something about how we will look at this Kingdom life – this new life in Christ – from now on.
The parables of the treasure hidden in the field, and the pearl of great price tell us that all other things of value – all other things that we treasure – all other things that we think are important – all other priorities – will have second place in the Kingdom of heaven.
For instance, if you’ve been pinning your hopes for joy and happiness and success in life on winning the lottery – or winning it big at the casino in Niagara Falls – that’s probably not going to happen. But if you do win – maybe even win big – give me a call and we’ll celebrate. Of course if any of you ever were to win at the casino – I suppose the last person you’d want to celebrate with is your pastor. “Hi Fred! Oh! You just won ten million dollars in the lottery? Let’s see, 10% of that would be…” Yeah. I suppose the last person you’d want to celebrate with is your pastor.
Full disclosure here – Nancy and I have been to the casino. Just once. On our anniversary a couple of years ago. And you know those commercials where they show those gorgeous women laughing and showing excitement over – presumably – winning something? That’s not what we saw. We saw nothing but looks of desperation. Long faces. Intense staring. Very little in the way of joy. And just in case you’re wondering – no, I didn’t win anything. But I didn’t lose anything either. We just walked around. Watching.
Folks – whether you win the big one – or have worked hard and invested wisely – or you’re just getting by – whatever happiness you think that the riches of this world can bring – let me tell you – all earthly treasures – all earthly things of value – are as nothing – they’re nothing – compared to the joys and the security of being part of God’s Kingdom – the place where true joy is found.
Folks, let me tell you what Kingdom life is all about. That old person – with the long face – and the joyless expression – is put to death. That’s what Jesus does when we welcome into our hearts, and our homes, and our lives. That old person that you once were is put to death. And in its place – and this is the really good news – in its place there arises a new person – a new you. It is a new life – a new life of joy that you can find only in Jesus Christ.
Think about it! We Christians have the best good news ever! New life in Jesus Christ! There is no greater source of joy than this!
So you see – the Christian life IS a life of joy – a joy that comes from the life of faith – faith that begins like a seed that is planted in our hearts and lives. A seed that grows, and develops, and matures. And like yeast – it spreads throughout our entire lives – until we come to recognize that there is nothing – absolutely nothing that can compare in worth or in value to being in God’s Kingdom. It’s greater than the Bills winning the Super Bowl, if that should ever happen. It’s greater than the Sabres winning the Stanley Cup, if that should ever happen. There’s no title. No treasure. No pearl. No nothing.
Quite frankly – I can’t think of a better way of life. I can’t imagine a better way of living. May the love and joy of God’s Kingdom – and the peace of Jesus Christ – be with you always. Amen
Monday, July 21 2014
Matthew 13:24–30, 36–43
If you were here with us last week you’ll recall that we talked about planting seeds. This week we’re going to talk about pulling weeds. By the way – how many of you like to pull weeds? Boy, have I got a job for you! We could use some volunteers around here to pull weeds in the landscaping. Have you noticed? Please – and I’m serious about this – see me after worship if you can give an hour sometime to help pull weeds.
Having said that, weed pulling is not an easy job. Even Jesus – in our reading today – tells a parable – a teaching story – where a landowner tells his servants not to pull the weeds from the field. His point is that the wheat that has been planted – and that he wants to grow – might be pulled up along with the weeds should the servants decide to pull the weeds from the field. The landowner’s solution is to say, “Let both grow together until the harvest.”
Jesus explains this parable to his disciples this way: “The weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.
So the weeds are pulled up at the final judgment and thrown into the fire. Jesus tells us that the weeds represent everything that causes sin and all who do evil. I think I speak for all of us when I say, when it comes to the final judgment, I know for sure I don’t want to be a weed. Anybody here want to be a weed? I didn’t think so.
I don’t want to be a weed, because weeds are those whom Jesus says are “evil doers.” And I KNOW that I am not an evildoer – therefore I can’t be like one of these weeds that Jesus is talking about. I mean – after all – I am a pastor, don’t you know! AND I’m a good Christian. So…so…so, so wait. What DOES Jesus mean by evildoer? Where is the cut off line? I mean, I’m not a terrorist. I’m not a murderer. I’ve never done any of those really bad things you read about in the newspaper.
I might tell a fib once in awhile. I might be envious of the guy down the street with his flashy new sports car. So just where does God draw the line when He’s talking about these evildoers?
I don’t think there is a line. When the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God?” is he right? Yeah. Of course he is. We’ve all sinned. And I think it’s important to ask right now – if that’s the case – if we have all sinned, and if we all fall short of the glory of God – is there any hope for us?
You bet there is! And it’s all because of Jesus. Through His life, death and resurrection, God forgives – God forgets – AND God gives us a new life and a fresh start. It is as if He turns us weeds into wheat.
Now, I know that in nature that can never happen. A weed will always be a weed, and wheat will always be wheat. So the parable only tells part of the story at this point, because the way God works – the way Jesus operates in our lives – is to turn our weed-like lives into good wheat that produces good seed. That is our hope.
Now – having said all that – let me take this analogy of weeds a step further than the parable itself takes it. If we can let the weeds stand for all those bad things in our lives that we DO have some control over – wouldn’t you pull those weeds before they became deeply rooted and much more difficult to pull?
When doing pre-marital counseling I almost always tell couples not to let their little problems become big problems. I invite them to come to talk to me or somebody else if they need to. In other words – recognize the weed – pull the weed – before it becomes deeply rooted.
And I know that we don’t like to talk about some things in church for fear of being labeled judgmental – but what are some of the weeds that can be nipped in the bud if dealt with early enough? What are the weeds that if left to grow unchecked are those things that ruin relationships and destroy lives? Again, at the risk of sounding judgmental – let me label some of these weeds. And I’ll tell you right up front that I like a bottle of beer or a glass of wine most evenings, but alcohol can be a problem. So can tobacco products, gambling, pornography, adultery, illegal drugs or inappropriate use of prescription drugs, especially those that are prescribed for pain. This is a real problem!
Again, I’m not pointing fingers. I’m not beating up on anybody – I certainly don’t want to come across sounding judgmental – and the last thing I want to do is scold. Preachers should never scold – at least not from the pulpit.
But maybe we SHOULD talk about these weeds more often. Whatever weeds that we have some control over that ruin our health – our relationships – either with God or with others – our jobs – and our lives. And I want to state publically that those whose lives are being choked by these weeds are, for the most part, not bad people. In fact, they are good people – people who just haven’t been careful – people who thought, well maybe just this once. People who just didn’t realize that they had walked into a field of weeds. And we all – we all need to be careful not to pass judgment on them.
It was F.B. Meyer, I believe, who once said that when we see a brother or sister in sin, there are two things we do not know: First, we do not know how hard he or she tried not to sin. And second, we do not know the power of the forces that assailed him or her. We also do not know what we would have done in the same circumstances. So rather than judge and condemn, the proper response is to be of help.
Because hey! It happens. It happens to good people. A few wrong turns here and there – a few bad choices – and suddenly a person is starting to look more like a weed than wheat. So let’s call a weed what it really is – a weed. Let’s learn to recognize those weeds – and learn to pull that weed before it develops deep roots. Doing that is an essential part of living not just a successful life – but the abundant life that Jesus wants to give us.
The good news is – is that you and I can recover from the bad choices we make. We can! With God’s help and with the help of caring Christian friends and family – we can get our lives turned around. It takes work. It takes perseverance. It takes support AND it takes forgiveness – God’s forgiveness – and maybe most importantly – it takes you forgiving yourself. It takes you forgiving yourself!
So maybe this is a good time in this message to remind you that God’s not mad at you. Let me say it again. God’s not mad at you! It might sound like He is based on this parable. Almost sounds like God is anxious to bundle up those weeds and throw them into the fire. But no. God’s not a tyrant. God is in the Good News business. Remember?
And that Good News is this: God is anxious to forgive. God’s great desire is to forgive. That’s what God does. And when God forgives – what does God do? God forgets. So here’s the thing. God is not anxious to punish us for the wrong choices that we might have made at some point in our lives. I’ve gotta tell ya, one of my favorite Bible verses is, “Do not remember the sins of my youth.” I know we’re Lutherans, but can I get a loud “Amen” to that?
What I want you to hear today is that God offers us – God offers you – forgiveness and the opportunity to start over. God’s great desire is to free you – if you have made a mess of your life – God wants to free you from that mess.
It’s like a man who one day was walking through a park, and noticed a massive oak tree. A vine had grown up along its trunk. The vine started small; nothing to bother about. But over the years the vine had gotten taller and taller. Now the entire lower half of the tree was covered by the vine’s creepers. The mass of tiny feelers was so thick that the tree looked as though it had hundreds of birds’ nests in it. The result was that the tree was in danger. This huge, solid oak was quite literally being taken over; the life was being squeezed from it.
But the gardeners in that park had seen the danger. They had taken a saw and severed the trunk of the vine one neat cut across the middle. The tangled mass of the vine’s branches still clung to the oak, but the vine was now dead. That would gradually become plain as weeks passed and the creepers began to die and fall away from the tree.
No matter what kind of weeds are growing – no matter what kind of vines are choking the life right out of you – I want you to know that God is in the weed pulling business. If you let Him, He will help you to recognize those choking weeds – and give you the strength, energy, resources, and the desire to pull them out.
I know it’s not easy. On your own it’s not easy. That’s why God recognizs our need for a Savior. That’s why God is our Savior. He is the One who tells you that you are loved –that your life is special – and yes, that the choices you make do matter.
So let me challenge you to ask God to pull the weeds that may be growing in your heart. In addition to all those harmful things I mentioned before – how about these weeds? Bitterness, envy, lust. An unforgiving spirit. Heck – the list goes on and on – but you know. You know which weeds are choking you.
So put a name on it – put a name on the weed – or the weeds – that are choking the life right out of you – and turn them over to the Lord. Let Him put a little spiritual round-up on it – and get rid of it.
The reason God hates weeds – the reason why God hates sin – is because sin separates us from God. Sin hurts people! Sin hurts us! Sin hurts you! The sins that destroy people – destroy families – destroy relationships – these are what God wants to pull from our lives and throw them into the fire.
Pulling weeds is God’s job. Staying away from them is ours. Amen
Monday, July 14 2014
Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23
Today’s Gospel reading is a well-known – shall we even say one of Jesus’ more popular parables. And just so you know what I’m talking about, a parable is a just another form of storytelling. Jesus loved to tell stories. So these stories that Jesus tells – these parables – these are the tools Jesus uses as teaching devices. He told stories that people could connect with – and most often, the message was designed to tell his listeners something of what the Kingdom of God is all about.
Ever wonder what the Kingdom of God is like? Well then, listen! Today’s parable is called “The Parable of the Sower.” A farmer sows seed in his field – and he is extravagant in his sowing – and the seed falls on four different kinds of soil.
The most commonly held understanding of this parable is that people can be like four different kinds of soil – four different ways in which we might hear and receive the Word of God. There is the hard soil – where nothing gets in. There is the rocky soil and the soil full of thorns or weeds – but the seed planted there has no depth of soil and eventually the rocks and thorns choke the young plants. And then there is good soil. And the good soil – the soil with depth – is where the seed – or in our case, the Word of God – takes root and flourishes. It grows – it multiplies – it produces fruit – it produces more seeds.
It seems to me that we can and we do make choices about what kind of soil we want to be. We can harden our hearts to God’s Word. We can listen and accept only those things that we agree with. We can allow the cares and riches of this world to choke things out. Or we can allow the Word of God to take root and produce the kinds of fruit that God is looking for in our lives.
In other words – when it comes to bearing fruit – when it comes to the Word of God – as it relates to this parable now – two things are going on.
First – you and I are recipients of the seed – the Word of God. What happens to that Word of God that is planted in our hearts is – I guess you could say – up to us. Will it grow or will it die? Will it shrivel up? Or will it thrive?
Second – when the seed of the Word of God falls onto hearts that are good soil – when we gladly hear and learn it – something good is going to happen. Jesus says it will bear fruit in our lives – 30 times over – 60 times over – even 100 times over. Man! That’s a lot of fruit!
So the parable tells us something about us, and how we hear and receive the Word of God. But this parable also tells us something about who God is. God is the One who is sowing the seed. He is in the seed planting business.
And He is extravagant. Throwing it here. Throwing it there. That’s just the way our God is! And when the seeds sprout and grow, what happens? More seed! Folks –God has been in the seed sowing business for centuries! And I would like to make the case that we are the ones through whom God works to plant His seed wherever and whenever we have opportunity to do so. It’s just another reason to say that church matters.
Now – if it is true that we are God’s hands – God’s feet – if it is true that we are ambassadors for Christ as the Bible tells us – well then – it seems to me that we are in the Good News seed planting business. Folks – as disciples of Jesus Christ – we are seed planters. That’s what we are. That’s what we do. And don’t for one minute ever underestimate the power of one seed.
Think about this. What happens when you plant one seed – one kernel of corn? A kernel of corn buried in the soil will produce one corn stalk. Each stalk then will produce what – let’s say one or two ears of corn? The average ear of corn has 250 kernels, so that a single kernel of corn, under the right conditions will yield a 250% to 500% return on investment.
Folks, may I suggest to you that sowing seeds is never a waste of time? You – you might never know – or perhaps not know right away – it might even be 20 or more years from now before you find out. But planting seeds is never a waste of time. A smile here. A friendly touch there. A word of encouragement. A word of thanksgiving. A helping hand. A word about Jesus, and what he has done for you. A teaching moment to speak about the loving kindness of our Father in heaven. A word of grace and forgiveness demonstrated – demonstrated as well as spoken.
These are seeds. And remember, it’s God’s seed, but these are the seeds that – by the grace of God – you and I plant. Whether as moms or dads talking about the things of God at home – around the dinner table – or before the youngest child in the family goes to bed at night. Every night – in every home – everyone in the family gets a blessing. Around here we practice the Faith 5. Share highs and lows; read Scripture; talk about how that Scripture applies to your day; pray; and bless.
You are a seed planter as a Sunday School teacher – planting seeds in the hearts and lives of those kiddos. As an usher – your job is more than just handing out a piece of paper. Your job is to welcome and greet people in the name of Jesus. And that’s true for anyone of us who welcomes a child – or a stranger – into this place. You are planting seeds. And in time – you will see results.
I came across this Utube video this week. It’s titled “Unsung Hero,” and it’s actually a commercial for an insurance company in Thailand – but I think you’ll like it. Let’s roll it! [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uaWA2GbcnJU]
Two weeks ago, I titled my sermon “Beyond Random Acts of Kindness.” This video appears at first to be scenarios showing this dude doing random acts of kindness. But if you noticed – he kept doing the same ones over and over. And eventually he got results – results that he really wasn’t expecting.
He was planting seeds. Over and over again – planting the same seed – seed planting that went beyond just random acts.
Imagine what all of us could do by planting the seeds of God’s Word wherever and whenever the opportunities come along. And you know – they come along every day. And you know, they will produce fruit. We might never know when or by how much.
It’s like Dr. Robert Schuller used to say: “Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed.” The greatest things in this world, including the kingdom of God, grow from tiny seeds.
Of course, this story which we normally refer to as the parable of the sower is not about farming at all. It’s certainly not about a careless farmer, but a generous God – a generous God who sows seeds of love and grace and mercy and kindness and forgiveness in the hearts and minds of all who will listen. But we know that different kinds of people respond in different ways to that love, grace, mercy, kindness, and forgiveness. And that’s why Jesus describes those who hear as different kinds of soil.
But maybe what Jesus is really saying to us is that goodness does have a chance in this life. It’s not always easy. And we never know where that seed is going to land and what that seed is going to produce. And yes, sometimes the seed of goodness simply withers away. But wherever there is good soil – and because it is there that the good seed of God’s Word is planted – well, it seems to me that there will be results.
Let’s go back to that video for a moment. I like that question at the end, “What is it that you desire most?” Well – that all depends on what kinds of seeds you’re sowing. Because, like it or not, you are a seed planter. We are seed planters. We are “The Good News Seed Planting Company.” All it takes is one tiny seed. The seed of God’s Word – sown in our hearts and minds. And it will take root. It will grow. It will produce fruit – good fruit – grace, mercy, peace, kindness and forgiveness.
And that my friends – that is what the Kingdom of God is like. Amen
Monday, July 07 2014
Matthew 11:16–19, 25–30
Thank you for being at worship today. I hope you are enjoying your Independence Day weekend. We Americans love our freedom – and the freedom to worship God as we choose is just one of the many freedoms we Americans enjoy. And it is good to talk about freedom – especially as disciples of Jesus Christ. Because – on the one hand – as Americans – our freedom as Americans – comes with a price. For way more than 200 years men and women in our armed forces have fought – and some have died – to secure the freedoms that we Americans treasure.
AND as disciples of Jesus Christ – as citizens of the Kingdom of God – we need to remember the freedom that Christ gives us – through his life, death and resurrection – setting us free from slavery to sin, death, and the power of the devil. Because of Jesus – we are set free from these things in order to grab hold of the life that is truly life – new life in Jesus Christ.
So today – this weekend – as we celebrate the freedoms that are ours by virtue of our citizenship of the good old U.S of A., I want you to give thanks to God for the freedoms that are ours won for us by Jesus Christ who gives us citizenship in the Kingdom of God. By the way – this is what Martin Luther referred to as the “Two Kingdoms.” We are citizens of two kingdoms – the kingdom of this world [or in our case, citizens of the United States of America] and citizens of the Kingdom of God. Just thought I’d throw that in – because it will be on the test.
Now – today’s reading form the Gospel of Matthew just happens to be a great text for this three-day weekend. For most of us, it is a time to maybe get away – and I think we can see that many of our folks have done just that this weekend. And this doesn’t surprise me – because whenever the 4th falls on the weekend, or on the Friday before or Monday after – people go away for the weekend. Hopefully for all of us it is a time to rest and relax.
Because Jesus lets us know that taking time to rest is important for us physically, mentally and spritiually. “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
It reminds me of a woman who opened her refrigerator one day and saw a rabbit sitting on one of the shelves. “What are you doing in there?” she asked.
And the rabbit – the rabbit replied: “This refrigerator is a Westinghouse, isn’t it?”
The woman replied, “Yes.”
“Well,” said the rabbit, “I’m westing.”
O come on! You love my bad jokes, don’t you? Who knows! Maybe that bad joke will help you to remember.
Listen, I want to talk to you today about what Jesus means when he says, “Come to me all you who are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And in order to do that we need to read the rest of his statement which says, “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.”
To understand the rest that Jesus is talking about – we need to understand the yoke that he is talking about. We usually think of a yoke as something made of wood, that allows two oxen for instance to be yoked together to pull a plow. The yoke that Jesus is talking about is something else. Those of you who remember Pastor Steve when he was with us was the first to point out what I am about to say – and he got this information from a guy named Rob Bell.
You see, in Jesus’ day, there were rabbis – in other words – teachers and interpreters of the Jewish Law, otherwise known as the Torah. Each rabbi’s teaching was called a yoke – a set of rules and lists, which was really that rabbi's interpretation of how to live the Torah.
Now remember that Jesus was a rabbi. 13 times in the New Testament Jesus is called a rabbi. 41 times He is called a teacher. By the way – only one time is he called a carpenter (Mark 6:3) And unlike the other rabbis of his day, Jesus tells us that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light.
Now here’s the thing. Jewish boys from the age of five to ten were taught in the synagogue by the local rabbi. They memorized the Torah – in other words – the first 5 books of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. I mean – can you imagine that? Hey, it gets better. By the age of fourteen, some boys would go further. The best would go on to memorize – memorize! – the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament. After age 14, a boy might continue on under the teaching of a particular rabbi. These were the best of the best. And they had to meet the approval of the particular rabbi that they wanted to learn from.
If the rabbi accepted someone who was the best of the best, he would say, “Come, follow me. Take my yoke upon you and become my disciple.” Again, the teaching of that rabbi was called that rabbi’s yoke. But if the rabbi did not accept someone to be his disciple, he would tell that boy, “Go, home to your village. Go home and learn the family business - fishing, farming, carpentry. You cannot be my disciple.”
Do those words sound familiar? Those are the words Jesus uses. And who does he call to be his followers – his disciples? The best of the best? No. He’s calling Peter and Andrew and James and John. Fishermen. Obviously they are not the best of the best. If they had been – they would have been following some other rabbi somewhere else – and not plying the fisherman’s trade.
So this brings us back to Rabbi Jesus’ yoke. What does he say about his yoke? He says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” You see, all those other rabbis? They gave their own thoughts and interpretations of the Jewish Laws. Do this, don’t do that. Do this this way. Here’s what this law means and the way that law must be observed.
Ai yai yai yai yai! It was a heavy burden. So is it any wonder that when Rabbi Jesus comes along – he reduces all these laws – all these rules and regulations – and he boils them down to just two. OK – you already know what they are, (say it with a rap beat) “Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor – love your neighbor as yourself. Love God with all your heart and soul and mind, and love your neighbor – love your neighbor as yourself.” I’ll bet you didn’t know that Jesus was a rapper!
And just to get an idea of how heavy the yokes – in other words – the teachings of these other rabbis were, we need only to turn to the New Testament book of Acts. If you remember, the Apostle Paul is a missionary to the Gentiles. And what we find in the book of Acts, is that Paul is arguing with certain leaders of the church in Jerusalem who believed that in order to become a Christian, the gentiles first had to become Jews and submit to the rules and regulations of Judaism. And Paul counters their arguments by asking, “…why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke” – see, there’s that word yoke again – “that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts15:10.) By the way, Paul won the argument.
I am so glad we have Jesus who says, “My yoke is easy! My burden is light!” I mean – how easy can it get! At least in terms of remembering what Jesus asks of us, his disciples, to remember. Now – I know – putting those two love commandments into practice is quite another story. That loving part is not always easy. But there it is.
Hey! One other thing about what was said about the rabbis of Jesus’ day. And I know you’ve heard this before – but I really think this is so cool!
As a rabbi walked along – he taught as he walked. And his disciples would follow closely behind him. And the roads were dusty. So these disciples who closely followed their rabbis would get covered with the dust of their rabbi. Therefore, it was a common saying for disciples of any given rabbi, “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi.”
Jesus calls to himself – to be his disciples – anyone who is willing to follow and to learn. He called to himself Peter and Andrew and James and John – Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha – and all the rest. Were they best of the best? No. Did Jesus think that they could cut it as his disciples? Well, yeah.
Do you think that Jesus thinks you can do it? You don’t have to be the best of the best. You don’t even have to be the best. You just have to be willing. Jesus is looking for willing disciples.
And what you get is freedom. Freedom and rest. Freedom and rest from having to work to make God love you. Freedom and rest from thinking that there are all these rules and regulations that church says you have to follow. Freedom and rest from the guilt of sin. Freedom and rest from fear. Freedom and rest from the penalty of sin – which is eternal separation from God.
And you ARE free – free to be the son – free to be the daughter – free to be the disciple that Rabbi Jesus is calling you – calling me – to be today. Free to take the yoke of rabbi Jesus – who simply wants us to love God, and love our neighbor, because nothing else matters.
My yoke is easy and my burden is light. “So come! You come follow me,” says Jesus. What will your answer be?
My friends – we’re all in this together – walking together with Jesus.
Therefore – “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi Jesus.” Amen