Rested - Part 2
February 01, 2015
RESTED – part 2
February 1, 2015
Has anyone ever been bored in church? Pretty unanimous. We’ve all been bored. If we are really tired, the pastor can sound a lot like the teacher from Charlie Brown. Wawa waawawa. And so we can be forgiven when we ask ourselves, “Dear God, how long are we going to be here?”
If we are bored at church, we can end up simply enduring church. And if we are only enduring church, we will soon find ourselves asking why we should attend at all.
I have to confess to you that during elementary school I really did not enjoy church. There was no Kidzone, nothing for kids at all, and we were forced to sit at the front of the church, right hand side, with the rest of our male students of the same age. And it was deadly boring. When I was 11, and moved to the equivalent of middle school, I was given the choice of not attending church and I jumped at it.
Perhaps more damaging is that simply enduring church will give us the impression that God himself is boring and needs to be endured. And if we can walk away from church, it’s just as easy to walk away from God. While this may be neither fair nor logically sound, the reality is that we do tend to draw those kind of conclusions. I stopped attending church and, by and large, stopped thinking about God or speaking with him.
Boring church and bored believers may even be the reason why some people choose never even to try church. They’ve seen Christian friends or Christian leaders who were boring or who seemed bored, those who feel guilty about having any fun and who have to put themselves in such a straightjacket with a list of do’s and don’ts.
When I was an intern as a youth pastor during Bible College, I ended up living in a Christian home that was absolutely stifling. No TV. No radio except on weekends. No sports, no shopping, no going out on Sundays. And while each of the three children of that couple were seemingly following those rules, in secret they were doing things that were not what I would call God-honouring.
The reality is that Christians can have a lot of fun, without having to fall into the trap of “everything goes.”
Now, do you remember a time when you were dating and you fell into love? The sun rose and set on the other person. You had rose-coloured glasses on so that you overlooked faults that were obvious to everyone else. The relationship was full of excitement and intense feelings. You were eager to spend time together so you searched for common interests. Or you were blissfully happy just to be near the other person and do nothing at all.
For many couples, once they get married and the challenges of the responsibilities of being together and having a family hit them fully, the relationship will change. Neither worships the ground the other walks on any longer. The quirks that seemed so endearing at first now get on one’s nerves. The differences in their homes of origin can lead to expectations that remain unfulfilled. Daily life can grind down. Bills can pile up. And pity the couple where one or both expect that the initial excitement and intense feelings of falling in love have to continue indefinitely … there will be bitter disappointment, disillusionment, and, yes, boredom.
Even if the marriage lasts, if it ended up being something to be endured, something mundane and boring, I’m sure there’s not a lot of celebration going on.
Some believers experience the same when it comes to their relationship with God. When they first believed and committed to living their lives for God, there is this initial excitement. Every time the Bible is opened there is something new, fresh, interesting and applicable. Talking with God is something looked forward to. There is joy in being around other believers and speaking with each other about what our faith means to us. Worship was rapturous.
But real life doesn’t stop. Getting battered by life continues. Temptation doesn’t go away. We get tired of continuing to ask God for stuff that we don’t seem to get. We get so busy and overwhelmed that we lack the time and energy to be with other believers. Some of the things we read in the Bible trouble us and reading it becomes mundane.
Now imagine if you get paid to be a Christian. You get paid to read and study the Bible and pray for others. You’re getting paid to be close to God. You’re a professional Christian. Is there a danger that a vibrant relationship with God and others can turn from joy to chore, from desire to obligation? Of course there is. Not that I ever experienced such a thing.
I think the same must have been true at the beginning, when Jesus first called the disciples, they must have been exited. Jesus asked “who do you say that I am,” to which the apostle Peter confidently asserts, “you are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29), that is, God’s anointed David king who would bring about God’s rule on earth. They have found the Messiah who would bring about lots of change in the world. Being with him will be the adventure of a life-time.
I can imagine Judas Iscariot being like a kid in line to get on a rollercoaster. He couldn’t wait for the ride to begin, totally pumped about what was going to happen. But weeks stretched to months and months into years and nothing much was happening. The Romans still ruled, the tax collectors still got rich, the priests were still greedy and corrupt, life was still hard for the average Jew. How easy to get disillusioned and start taking money from the common purse he was in charge of.
Instead of victory, Jesus spoke of suffering. He told his followers that their lives will not be better, at least not in the short-run. In fact, times will get a lot harder before there is any hope of it getting any better. This is not what Judas signed up for.
And then Jesus says this to his followers as recorded in Matt 11:
Come to me, all you who are toiling hard and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my joke upon you and learn from me because I am lowly and humble at heart and you will find rest for your souls. Because my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11:28-30
What do you mean, Jesus, how can those who are to walk in triumph be toiling hard and carry heavy burdens?
The illustration that Jesus uses in this passage to make his point is something that we’re personally no longer familiar with. In our world, farmers no longer use oxen for pulling or plowing. They now have tractors. But when Jesus makes reference to oxen pulling burdens, those who were listened to him knew exactly what he was referring to because they saw it on a daily basis.
So Jesus starts by saying,
Come to me …
This is a very personal invitation. An invitation to himself. Don’t come to a list of do’s and don’ts. Don’t come to some system of religious that someone has handed down to you. Don’t come to a place where you have to pretend to be pious or religious. Come to me, he says. Jesus was not interested in inviting his followers into a new religion, however he is inviting them into a new relationship.
In the same way, Jesus called those who came to him into a new closeness with God the Father. He wanted his followers to be able to call the creator of the universe the most intimate name for father that existed at that time: abba (in Hebrew and Aramaic, the word for father is ab or av, but his is how a child would say father). Jesus is pointing out that the Creator of the universe is interested in being in relationship with his creations.
Come to me all who are toiling hard and heavenly burdened. Who were those who were toiling hard and heavily burdened?
Jesus could have been referring to those who had no say and no power – like fishermen, for example. They were at the mercy of their employers, at the mercy of the Roman soldiers, at the mercy of tax-collectors, at the mercy of greedy and power hungry high priests, at the mercy of the priests and Pharisees who comprised the Jewish court –because they had no way to defend or protect themselves, no regress. They were burdened by the temple tax and the Roman tax.
These were also the ones who were asked to keep the heavy burden of the detailed interpretation of the Mosaic Law as spelled out by the Rabbis, the religious teachers, who told them that they were unacceptable to God if they didn’t do so. They were burdened by an unbearable list of do’s and don’ts.
Those who were listening to Jesus, knew that it isn’t so much that the yoke itself is heavy, the real weight comes from the load that is attached to it, this weight bearing down on them heavily. Oh how they wished that the Messiah would remove these things.
It is amazing what kind of physical loads can be endured by man and beast. But the weight that Jesus is talking about is not about physical burdens, is it? The heavy yoke is about the difficulties in life and the difficulties of following a set of rules.
How many people have you known who became Christians and their life just got a lot harder. They are harder on themselves, harder on others. They are straining and stressing out in their faith, but the joy and peace of God seems to elude them?
Learn from me for I am lowly and humble at heart.
The word translated “lowly” or sometimes “meekly,” does not have the negative connotation in the original Greek than it does in the English. The very same word is used in the Beatitudes as recorded in Matt 5. Do you remember Jesus saying, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5)? The word picture is that of an animal being willing to take instruction from its owner – like these police dogs in training
So when Jesus tells his followers that he is lowly, he is pointing out that he is willing to follow God’s will for his life.
Similarly, being humble means being so strong and secure within oneself that one doesn’t have to assert oneself. When Jesus says that he is humble, it means that he doesn’t have to prove anything. And these attributes are to characterize his disciples as well. They are to learn what it truly means to finding the strength and accompanying peace and joy of being lowly and humble.
If we are as Jesus is, we should not worry that God will abuse our willingness to follow his will for our lives. He will not take advantage of us. He will not make us do something we hate.
Yet we may be hesitant to trust him fully because we doubt that God is really interested in what is best for us. Maybe he’ll send me to the mission field. Maybe he’s asking me to give away all of my possessions. Maybe he’s going to ask me to live a miserable life. I better be rebellious and then God will not make me into a boring person who simply endures life and faith.
Yet Jesus seems to be saying something quite different. Jesus’ yoke is to be different. It is to be easy.
For one, an easy yoke is one fitted properly. A properly fitted yoke on an oxen doesn’t chaff, it doesn’t depend on chains or ropes cutting into the shoulders or neck of the ox but has properly fitted wooden supports.
The reality is that humans are not fitted to follow a law external to themselves, even though many religious people seek the security of being told exactly how to live their lives … what they can eat and drink and what they cannot, which end time scenario is the right one, what clothes they can and cannot wear. They may even seek a human leader who is always right, who always has the answer, whose word is law, who cannot be questioned.
Jesus yoke is fitted for the lowly and humble at heart. It is fitted for those who worship and serve a God who is close. It is fitted for those who joyfully love and help others. It is fitted for those who flourish in an environment of mutual love, respect and encouragement.
And so, Jesus says that his burden is light.
What is Jesus’ burden that he would place upon his followers? It has been variously called the Law of Christ, the Law of the Spirit, and the Royal Law. In its essence it is the law of love. That is supposed to be our yoke … and it is to be carried easily. It’s not a chore, not a duty, not heavy, not burdensome. It is something that we would want to bear.
Yet this tension between the Law of Moses and the Law of Love was something that even people in the first century church struggled with. When the issue of the conversion of non-Jews to Christians arose in the first century church, at the council in Jerusalem part of the conversation went like this:
Some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentile (Christians) must be circumcised and required to obey the Law of Moses.” … (Peter speaking) “Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the (Gentile) disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” Acts 15:5,10
Peter may have recalled the words of Jesus we read today when he spoke at the council.
I think that we need to come to the conclusion that if our relationship with God is difficult or boring or something to be endured, then something is fundamentally wrong. We are approaching this whole thing from a wrong angle.
All yokes aside, let’s consider what most sermons are about: aside from believing that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, who came to earth to die in order that our sins are forgiven and we are right with God, sermons often center around prayer, reading the Bible, connecting in a small group, serving the community, helping the needy, giving to charity. What if those things are the very reasons why we want to avoid church because we think that doing them will make our lives boring? And we don’t want boring.
The reality is that God doesn’t need us to do any of these things. And he surely doesn’t want to be someone merely endured, or to be followed merely out of obligation and duty. Which one of us wants to simply be endured by our spouse? Is that really what we are looking for in any relationship?
For God, the importance of living according to his will is because he knows that to do so freely and joyfully will bring meaning and peace into our lives. We find this reflected also in the OT where we read in the book of Jeremiah:
This is what YHWH says: "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jeremiah 6:16
That is, when they are not chores but joys for us.
So twice in our passage Jesus speaks of bringing rest into our lives:
This is not physical rest, but spiritual and emotional rest. Figuratively, the ox can rest despite the yoke on his neck. When I think of being at rest while yoked, I have visions of having my office somewhere on a beach where it’s sunny and warm. But what is even better is feeling as relaxed, happy and at peace as the man on the beach even when I’m plugging away in my office during a dark and wet winter.
Or maybe the kind of rest that Jesus is talking about is even better illustrated by the woman who rests on a park bench alongside the overflowed banks of the Thames River on the outskirts of London.
So what rest is Jesus speaking about? It is the rest that comes when we know we are OK with God and therefore with the uncertainty of life and our own mortality. I believe that death, especially when linked with eternal separation from God, causes many people the greatest anxiety, which is why it is not a topic of polite conversation, and why our society tends to hide away dying and death. We simply do not want to be reminded of our own mortality.
The rest Jesus is speaking about is also the assurance, that if we are OK with God then we’re OK period? In other words, if God loves, forgives and accepts us, we can love, forgive and accept ourselves. We can be at rest with ourselves.
If we are at peace with God, with our physical demise and with ourselves, we should have the ability to remain tranquil even among turmoil. To remain calm even when things don’t go our way. To respond quietly even when we are attacked. To step aside on a busy or stressful day and find time for ourselves and for God.
But what happens when we are still dreadfully afraid of our death? What happens when we cannot seem to forgive and love ourselves? What happens when we remain riddled with insecurities that make us defensive and harsh? What happens when we continue to be filled with anxiety and fear?
Job, when describing his suffering says:
I have no peace, no quietness; I have no rest, but only turmoil. Job 3:26
This devout man had suffered such loss that he had lost all sense of peace and joy.
Maybe you’ve been at a point where life has become so difficult and filled with stress or sadness that you can sympathize with the wish of this Psalmist:
Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Psalm 55:6
When we are to be at rest, we are still in upheaval. We may not think that these thoughts and feelings should be found in those who have made their peace with God. However, given the frailty of our human nature, it is often more prevalent than we might think.
It is then that we need to make some decisions on how to organize our lives, how to set new priorities, because the old ones are somehow keeping us from experiencing the rest we should. Desperation may get us to that point, but I don’t think we have to wait that long. For example, Jesus put it this way:
Seek first the kingdom of God and live according to what’s right in God’s eyes … Matthew 6:33
Jesus speaks of rearranging our priorities. The apostle Paul put it this way:
For the kingdom of God is a matter of … justice, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. … Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Romans 14:17-19
In other words, if we are not experiencing the rest we should, then we need to rearrange our lives somewhat so that it will lead to peace – inner peace, and peace with others.
Maybe we learn to connect with God on a completely new level. We learn to rest in his presence. To be still. To dwell in his goodness toward us. To step out of traffic and into his presence. And to do so even when we’re driving to work, or taking a coffee break, or walking down the street, or doing our chores. Maybe we will learn all over again what it means to trust in the one who is ever present, to truly be at rest in his love.
Let me tell you of one way that experiencing this rest will impact our lives. Think of it in terms of a weather map. Most weather maps are there to signify how the weather is right now in order to make a forecast as to what the weather will be like in the future. A low front usually brings rain with it. A high front usually brings sunshine.
But weather and weather change are not only observed outside. Given that fact, that the most critical climate may be the one that is created inside of a room by the people in it, would you consider yourself someone who brings a storm, who brings wind and rain, or someone who brings light and sunshine?
What would you say is most often true of yourself? Let me ask the question another way. What usually happens to the climate when you and I step into the room? What atmosphere are we creating – at home, at work?
Now we may respond that it matters how we feel, or it matters what happens to us any given day, or it depends on how others treat us. However, most of us still have one emotional state that tends to be our default position - no matter what is happening. It goes with us wherever we may go.
And it is this default position, one we may not be aware of it, we may not see it in ourselves, that can be the biggest obstacle to enjoying our relationships and careers. Just think about it for a moment. Are there certain people you like being around? What do you like about them? Or are there other kinds of people you would rather avoid? What do you dislike about them?
Unfortunately, some people are mostly sad, or in a bad mood, or even angry. Storm clouds of bitterness, anger and cynicism have formed in their lives. The realization should hit us that not many want to be around people like that – Bruce Banner being the possible exception.
My biggest hurdle in experiencing the rest that Jesus spoke about is being a person who always sees the cup half empty. Others might call me a pessimist, but I always saw myself as a realist. Besides, if you always see the worst in yourself and others, you’ll never be disappointed. I have to work every day to be a happier, more positive person. I do this consistently and find a lot of satisfaction and joy in it, especially when those who know me can see a change. This is a God-thing and I constantly refer to one of my favourite verses in the whole Bible:
Be joyful always. Pray continually. Give thanks in all circumstances. For this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
I practice giving thanks throughout my day, from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed. I work hard at doing this, but it’s not a chore. And as a result I find myself a joyful, positive person. Further, I have discovered that as I am resetting my default position then my relationships improve drastically.
Only when we adjust our person climate, will we start to experience the rest Jesus spoke about. Only if we re-set our personal climate, will we be the kind of people who get along with others and who others want to be around.
By the way, most of us look to the other person to change in order to improve our relationships. The reality is that we have no power and no control over the other person. We cannot change their attitude, no matter how much we nag, no matter how much we yell, no matter how much we try to guilt or intimidate. The only person we can seek to change is ourselves.
So let me ask you. If you are missing out on the emotional and spiritual rest that is to be yours, what do you think is keeping you from experiencing it? Are you still worried about your death? Are you uncertain that God really has your best in mind? Is your emotional default position one of pride, worry, anger, bitterness or sadness? Are you a person who sees the glass half empty?
WHAT IS THE ONE THING THAT I WILL NEED TO ADJUST IN ORDER FOR ME TO EXPERIENCE REST?
What priority do I need to change, what action do I have to take to experience the peace and joy that will bring the greatest benefit to my relationships?
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. 2 Thessalonians 3:16