Sunday, July 3, 2011

Pentecost 3 (Proper 9), Series A

Sermon on Matthew 11:25-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
July 3, 2011 (Proper 9, Series A)

“My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Um, really? Doesn’t He also say that we are to love God with all our heart, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves? Doesn’t He say that we will endure suffering and even death for His name? That we can expect to be treated by the world the same way He was treated? That the road to eternal life is the narrow one that only a few find? That (as last Sunday’s Gospel teaches) He came not to bring peace but a sword? How can He say that His burden is light? When you consider all that becoming a disciple of Jesus entails, it doesn’t look all that easy or light at all.

That is, unless you compare it to the alternative. Every religion in which man’s relationship to his god is dependent upon what man does, involves a hellish merry-go-round of good works. In Hindu societies, it is forbidden to give charity to those of a lower caste than you, because if you help them to much you will mess with their karma and they may end up reincarnated as a lower form rather than a higher one. Which, of course, means that life is incredibly hard for those of the “untouchable” caste. Of course, we are all aware of how harsh many of the different Muslim sects can be in terms of what they demand of their followers. And many of the ancient polytheistic religions, such as those of the Canaanites or even the Greeks and the Romans, involved horrific rituals, sometimes involving self-mutilation or even human sacrifice.

But even within Christianity, when Christians misunderstand their religion as one where our works are the important part of our relationship with God, the merry-go-round is there too. Luther pretty much destroyed his health during his early adulthood when he was trying to find assurance that God was pleased with him by following the monastic regimen of works and fasting and daily devotion and prayer. He scrubbed and scrubbed the floors, symbolical of his own heart; he prayed and prayed, and still it wasn’t good enough. And many Protestant groups aren’t much better. Many Christians spend their entire lives unsure of their standing with God. They make a decision for Him, they dedicate their lives to Him, they promise their sincere intention to make Jesus the Lord of their life as well as their Savior, but it never quite works out that way. The pet sins are still there. The doubts are still there. And so they make another decision for Christ, and they’re really, really sincere this time, since the last one apparently didn’t “take.” But the pet sin rears its ugly head again, whether it’s a tendency toward anger and rage, or gossip, or covetousness, or alcoholism, or lust, or simply a tendency to be lazy and sleep in on Sunday mornings. Many modern “evangelical” churches teach that consecrating your life to Jesus will give you a victory over those sins, but they never seem to go away completely. And so, since the person apparently wasn’t sincere enough or consecrated enough, he goes through the whole process again, and again, and again. But he’s still imperfect, still a sinner, and he still doesn’t really know what his standing is before God, and often he ends up spiritually exhausted and willing to give up on the whole “religion” thing entirely.

A couple of years ago, the Willow Creek Association published a survey of church members who attend many of the mega-churches that are members of that association and strive to follow the example of Willow Creek Church, a mega-church located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago. It was called the “Reveal Now” study. The startling finding, not only at Willow Creek itself, but at just about all of the other “seeker-sensitive” churches that follow its example, was that it was those who were considered most mature in the faith, the ones who were the most active in the programs and activities of their church, who were also the ones most likely to be seriously thinking about leaving the church entirely. They were simply burned out. What their church was giving them was a steady diet of law, law, and more law, and they were trying and failing to keep all of it, and the only encouragement they ever got was that God would help them to do better next time. Full and free forgiveness of sins, which is the only message that can actually help a person in that situation, is in most cases, simply not talked or preached about at all in those churches. If it’s talked about at all, it’s addressed to those who are visiting, as a means of encouraging them to join the church in the first place. But once a person joins, the Gospel is almost never mentioned again. It’s no wonder the most committed and most active Christians were the most burned out. When you think about it, that sort of life is not all that different from what Luther went through as a monk.

Compared to all that, Jesus’ yoke really is easy, and His burden really is light. You see, our relationship with our God, where we stand in His sight, doesn’t depend on how well we’ve done at keeping His law. No matter how hard we’ve tried, we’ve at best kept it very poorly, and if you include the thoughts and desires of the mind and heart, we haven’t even come close to keeping it at all. But because our relationship with him is dependent not on how well we’re doing, but on what He has done for us, and the promises he makes to us in the Scriptures, we can be confident that our heavenly Father is still our true Father and we are His true children. Should we strive to do good and avoid sin? Yes, of course we should. Do our failures affect our relationship with God? No they do not. Our confidence is not in what we do, but in what He has done.

And that is just plain liberating. As one of my professors at Fort Wayne, Dr. David Scaer, puts it in his commentary on James, the forgiveness of sins gives us a certain recklessness in doing good. Because our relationship with God is secure, our failures, including our future failures, are already forgiven. Now, that doesn’t mean we should carelessly or deliberately sin. But it does mean that we are free to serve God and our neighbor as well as we can without worrying about the fact that we won’t be perfect at it. Our relationship with God is grounded in His forgiveness and love, not in our commitment or decision. And so we really do have an easy yoke and a light burden. What we do in service to God and our neighbor isn’t weighed down by the fact that we never quite get it right. Our heavenly future is secure, even though we may stumble and fall during our earthly walk. God has already forgiven us. We already know what the verdict on Judgment Day will be: “It is finished.” And so our burden really is light, because eternity with God doesn’t hang in the balance. That’s been taken care of by Christ on the cross, and given you day after day and Sunday after Sunday in His Word and His body and blood. You’ve got heaven. You don’t need to work for it. Your burden is light indeed. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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