Saturday, 3 December 2016

Down with religion!

Jesus said... “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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.” Matthew 11:28-30

Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, was a carpenter. That’s worth remembering as we read these words. It’s surely very likely that Jesus as a boy and young man spent time in the carpenter’s workshop (in fact, in Mark 6:3 he himself is actually referred to as “the carpenter”, not just “the carpenter’s son”). And one of the things carpenters made in the world Jesus lived in was yokes

If, like me, you’re very much a city person, you may never have thought much about yokes. But we’ve all probably seen old pictures of milk maids with a long wooden pole or collar across their shoulders, and a milk bucket hanging off each end. That’s a yoke. It was simply a device to ease and balance the strain of carrying.

But it also applied to a much bigger kind of contraption: this would be fixed over the shoulders of a pair of oxen to enable them to pull the plough in tandem. The vital thing here was that it should sit comfortably on the oxen’s shoulders - otherwise it would rub and chafe, and there would soon be raw, bleeding flesh.

Is it possible that Jesus had made a speciality of perfectly-fitting yokes?

The religious teachers in Jesus’ day had another meaning too for the word: they talked about “the yoke of the law”. All the rules and requirements that had been accumulating over the centuries added up to a massive total - something, in fact, quite impossible for anyone to obey successfully. Laid like a yoke, so to speak, on people’s shoulders, they would soon crush anyone who was serious about being right with God.

Of course, Jesus never said that following him would be easy - the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 makes that plain. But in these very beautiful words he claimed that what he asked of his followers was a whole lot easier than hopelessly struggling to keep rule after rule and law after law; in comparison with that, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”.

Unlike the religious leaders who piled great weights on ordinary people, he claimed to be “gentle and humble in heart”. That wasn’t a boast! What he meant was something like this: “I’m not a teacher like those scribes and Pharisees. I have no wish to load you up with burdens you cannot bear. No, I will be gentle with your weaknesses and frailties, I will walk with you as your friend and brother. I want you lifted up, not ground down!”

Sometimes people say to me “Oh, you’re religious, aren’t you?” And I feel like replying, “No! I’m not religious! I detest  the very word religious! No, I am simply a follower of Jesus!” And that’s a totally different thing.

What about you? Is your “religion” in reality a dreary round of duties and obligations? Or is it a comfort, a blessing, a hope, and a practical support in the everyday business of life? Is it a set of rules - or is it a loving, personal relationship with God through faith in his Son Jesus? That’s “Christianity” - never mind “religion”!

Oh yes, it can be hard to follow Jesus. He also told his followers to “take up their cross” in order to follow him - an infinitely worse piece of woodwork than the yoke! But even the cross we must carry is far easier than the cruel weight of barren religion. It is a yoke made by the master carpenter, tailor-made to rest upon our shoulders and ensure no chaffing, no rubbing, no soreness. 

Following Jesus does involve various obligations: the church is important; so is regular worship; so is faithful and sacrificial service done in Jesus’ name. But we carry out these obligations as a loving, glad response to the one who died and rose again for us, not as duties which will win us God’s favour.

It’s in the light of all this that we must read the wonderful invitation that Jesus offered at the beginning of our quotation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest...”

If you are bowed down by the hardships of fife - or by the grinding duties of religion - it’s time to gladly say “Yes” to that invitation. Stop being religious - start following Jesus!

Lord Jesus, thank you that your yoke is easy and your burden light. Help me to bear them gladly and joyfully out of love and gratitude for the burden you bore for me on the cross. Amen.

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