The Yoke’s On Us!
Based on Genesis 24:56-67, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:28-30
Last week we heard from the Apostle Paul about our need to choose to whom we are enslaved – the sinful world or God. This week, Jesus continues to teach us as He asks us what kind of yoke will we put on and to whom will we choose to be yoked? For those who might not understand what a yoke is or what it is used for, let’s clear that up right now. Yokes are devices that connect two things – most commonly it was a wooden bar that laid across the back of the necks of two oxen secured with “U” shaped pieces that went under their necks. Reins were then attached and usually a plow or a cart to pull. Two animals can do twice the work of one and this was an efficient way to “harness” the energy of the animals to accomplish more work.
Just as the Apostle Paul noted that we are all enslaved to something, we are all also yoked to something or someone. In our Hebrew Bible reading, Rebekah agrees to be yoked to Isaac in marriage. In this week’s scripture, Paul notes that we are often yoked to sin and thus do what sin requires of us outwardly while inwardly our souls long to be yoked to God. This is what Jesus is teaching, that when we yoke ourselves to God, we find our burdens are shared and we can learn from God’s gentle and humble wisdom. Let us go to God now in prayer that we might choose to be connected to God and not to the world…
To understand the musings of the Apostle Paul this week, one has to go back to what we knew of Paul as Saul before he met the Christ on the Damascus road. Paul was a highly trained and zealous enforcer of the Law of Moses. He persecuted members of this new Jesus-sect of Judaism with passion and persistence. Chapter nine of the Book of Acts opens with these words, “…Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,…”. He was yoked to the letter of the Law – he was (in his mind) loving the Law by stamping out heresy. Paul had missed the point of the Law that it served as a doorway to understand how to live a life pleasing to God characterized by a relationship with God through grace. Yoking himself only to the Law instead of to God caused Paul to sin against God and his neighbor – in his words, “…For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….”
Abraham, now an elderly widower, decides it is high time for Isaac to have a wife. He sends his most trusted servant to procure a wife from his people rather than from the Canaanites surrounding him. The servant travels to Nahor (Abraham’s brother) and prays for the perfect woman to meet him at the well outside of town. Rebekah comes to the well and the prayer is granted. In our reading today, we pick up the end of the story as Rebekah is asked if she is willing to yoke herself to a man she has not met – on the strength of the actions of the LORD. She assents, receives a blessing from her father and brother, and leaves with the servant to go and meet Isaac. Isaac is pleased and brings her into his life and marries her.
Jesus has been educating the disciples of John the Baptizer so that they can tell John about what Jesus is doing. He has also scolded the crowds around him about their lack of faith and understanding of the meaning of what John had done and what Jesus was currently doing. He is trying to bring them the perspective that God’s kingdom had begun and that they needed to yoke themselves to Jesus in order to benefit. Jesus tells them that He understands they are weary and overburdened by the heavy-handed decrees of the Temple and the occupying Romans. He offers another way of living that is kind, good and far less burdensome. He offers them the opportunity to yoke themselves to His divine wisdom and so learn from Him how to live in the world but not be of the world. Jesus offers them rest (release really) for their souls from imperial rule.
Though we find ourselves in a rural part of the United States, surrounded by wilderness and farms, we are a few generations removed from the days when animals did the majority of the work around here. In those days, yokes were commonplace, and even the youngest members of farm families knew how and why they were used. Yokes were everywhere in Jesus’ time, and so his reference to them would have deep meaning. His listeners understood that they were under the “yoke” of the Roman Empire – asked to work under an ever-increasing burden of taxes and restrictions. In addition, the yoke of the Temple with its literal ideology of Torah and its own heavy-handed taxation, ground the people into dust.
What about us in the U.S. in 2020? To what is the Christian church yoked in our day and age? Without a doubt the Christian church in America is heavily influenced by uniquely American ideologies. Ideologies are those frames of reference which we use to represent, interpret, understand and make sense of our lives. Ideologies such as hyper-individualism (i.e., the myth of the self-made man), belief in the economic superiority of unrestrained capitalism, consumerism as the preferred life-style, and meritocracy (the lie that anyone can get ahead if they just work hard enough). According to Dr. Walter Brueggemann, the current crisis in the U.S. church “…has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence and part affluence….” It is safe to say that over the last 244 years, the Christian church and her members in America have, in many cases, yoked themselves to American ideologies rather than to the commandments of Jesus.
Just like the Apostle Paul, we often find ourselves as the Church and as disciples doing that which we do not want to do. We find ourselves ignoring the plight of our neighbors and being insulated from the reality of the difficult lives of persons of color and other marginalized people. We are often blind to how our privilege and power keep our neighbors from reaching their God-given potential. In a 1965 interview, the writer James Baldwin had this to say about life in America from his perspective: “…I don’t know if white Christians hate Negros or not, but I know that we have a Christian church that is white and a Christian church which is black. I know that the most segregated hour in American life is noon on Sunday…I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me…but I know I am not in their unions. I don’t know if the real estate lobby is against black people but I know the real estate lobbyists keep me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the Board of Education hates Black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools that we have to go to. Now this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith risking…my life…on some idealism which you assure me exists in America which I have never seen….” That was 1965, how much progress has been accomplished over the last 55 years?
We continue to do the things that are evil and that we hate as Christians and as Americans because we are yoked to, in Paul’s words, “this body of death”. Following the letter of the moral laws of God in our minds can never cancel the sin which dwells within us and which is socialized into us from our birth. The only One who can rescue us from this lived reality is our loving God through Jesus the Christ our Lord and Savior. We cannot make it on our own because when we try we fail. In order to succeed, we must yoke ourselves to Jesus and learn from Him how to live each day loving God with all that we have and all that we are AND our neighbor as ourselves. This is because, as Paul wrote, “…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do….”
The only way we will overcome the crises in America and the Christian church is to return to the faith and discipline of our baptismal vows. We must choose to become yoked to God’s gentleness and humility and disconnected from our idol worship of mindless patriotism and partisanship, love of acquisition, love of money and pursuit of violence born of fear of strangers. It is time to choose to whom we will be yoked, the sinful world which deals death or the present and future eternal life of our loving God. Thanks be to God for offering the yoke of grace for all! Amen.