A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
July 13, 2014
Zechariah 9:9-12; Matthew 11:25-30
How are you feeling this morning? Did you get enough rest last night? The answer to that question may be answered in just a few minutes as some of you might be dozing off. It happens, and I understand. My sleep patterns aren’t nearly as good as they used to be either.
I’m wearing on my right wrist a bracelet-like device called a FitBit. It was a combined birthday and Father’s Day gift from my son Tim and his family. They knew, bless their hearts, that I wouldn’t buy it for myself, so they got it for me. It really is quite an interesting design.
Synched with my iPhone and iPad, it tells me not only how many steps I take each day – the recommended number of steps is 10,000, by the way – but it can also monitor how long I slept, how much of my sleep was deep sleep, and how much was spent restlessly. According to the figures given me this morning when I awoke, last night I slept seven hours and twelve minutes. Of that period of time, I slept six hours and thirty-three minutes peacefully, while twenty-seven minutes constitute a time of restlessness.
As you might imagine, it was not my best night. In fact, I hear a nap calling me this afternoon.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, citing studies conducted from 1999 to 2004, on any given night more than forty million Americans did not get enough sleep.1 I can certainly believe that.
Do you know what it means? It means that every day you encounter someone who is sleep-deprived, if you are not counted in that number yourself. If you are, your ability to reason, to remember people and events, and to conduct your daily activities in a normal and reasonable manner become – shall we say? – challenged. You’ve heard the expression “brain cramp” or “senior moment”? Chances are, when these kinds of things occur, it is because you did not get enough sleep.
When you meet someone else who has not had enough sleep, you might find it to be a challenge as well. That person may be irritable or unable to concentrate upon what you are saying, and when you balance that with your own behavior, the conversation could… well… get out of balance.
Sleep, good and restful sleep, has become a rare commodity these days, it seems.
Age has something to do with it, to be sure. But there are other culprits. Maybe it’s the challenge of your job. It could be a close relationship that has proven to be difficult of late, filled with conflict. There may be other pressures pressing down on you, troubles you haven’t been able to reconcile, distractions that so far haven’t been answered. We live in a pressure-packed society filled with conflict and issues that often are beyond our control. But we find ourselves thinking and worrying about them anyway, even when there’s little or nothing we can do about it.
Why do you think Dr. Phil is so popular? Not with me, but there are obviously enough people watching him that his program stays on the air. Why do you think thousands of people flock to hear a popular preacher in Houston, watch him on TV and buy his books? It is because he provides “answers” to peoples’ problems, using more pop psychology, frankly, at least from my perspective, than he does gospel.
There are plenty of sources out there that can give you advice about how to live in such a way that sleep might come more easily for you. Why, you might even consult the scriptures.
If you didn’t get enough sleep last night, I hope the passage we read a few moments ago from Matthew’s gospel gives you some help. In fact, the next time you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, you might want to get up and read it again. Better yet, perhaps you could memorize it as a mantra. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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).
Except… except, Jesus didn’t mean this, I don’t think, as merely a sleep-aid or middle-of-the-night mantra. Come to think about it, it doesn’t really even sound that much like Jesus, at least not the one who demanded that we take up our cross and follow after him. It is indeed a very consoling, if not calming, passage, but it does leave us wondering just exactly what he means by all this.
We mentioned that every day we encounter people who are sleep-deprived. Well, we also run into people who are carrying burdens we cannot see, and whose attitudes and abilities are affected by the emotional weight they have upon them. It may have to do with physical problems. That is why, when you walk into the domed entrance of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the first thing you see is a ten-and-a-half-foot-tall marble statue of Jesus with his arms outstretched. Etched in the base of the statue known as “Christus Consolator,” are these words from Matthew’s gospel. “Come to me, all ye who are weary and heavy-laden…”
“Every time I walk by I have to touch it,” says Norma Green, a hospital employee who has been at Hopkins for 37 years. “I leave all my problems there so I don’t bring them to the patients.” Most of those who have walked by that statue since it was erected in 1896, feel exactly the same way.
Except… except, what Jesus said may not have to do with healing, not directly anyway. In fact, it may have meant something entirely different when he spoke these words. He had just completed a preaching mission to Galilee, his home country where he had not been well-received. And trust me, I know first-hand, that when you attempt to speak for God and you are aware that there are those listening who have no use for your message, it is a most discouraging thing.
If you are a reader of the Democrat-Gazette, you may recall the article last week that was printed in the religion section. It was about one of Billy Graham’s early crusades in Altoona, Pennsylvania where he recalled having great difficulty in getting his message through, largely because the local religious leaders – pastors and such – did not trust one another across denominational lines. The people of Altoona don’t remember it exactly the same way he does, but it was a discouraging time for him and his evangelistic team. In fact, they almost gave up because of it.
Jesus has just gone through a similar experience… in his own backyard, to make matters even worse. Our passage for this morning is part of his response. “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants” (vs. 25). Evidently, the Galileans Jesus had encountered were doing well enough that they didn’t feel the need to accept what this Nazarean itinerant preacher had to offer them.
It is interesting that Matthew is the only gospel writer who includes this saying by Jesus. That means something, I think. The clue to what that something is, is found in Matthew’s context. By the time Matthew sits down to write his gospel, the Jewish revolt against the Romans has been squashed… quite violently, as only the Romans could do. The temple is in ruins, the Sadducees are out of business (I wonder if they believe in the after-life now!), the Zealots have run for their lives (at least those who have survived the holocaust), and the Pharisees are the only ones to have come through all this with any semblance of cohesion. The future of Judaism, it appears, is in their hands.
Once again, this places them on a collision course with the followers of Jesus. Understand that these people, who have yet to call themselves Christians – at least in the area around Jerusalem – were still a relatively small group of people, and their intent was not to create another religion, one that replaced Judaism. At this point, their desire was to reform the faith that had nurtured them. They have much in common with the Pharisees. They share the same Torah, believe in the same commandments, revere the same prophets, and give their ultimate devotion to the same God. Which of the two parties of Jews had God’s blessing? This is one of the major issues they are struggling with as Matthew records these consoling words of Jesus.2
And this is what Matthew is telling the followers of Jesus, who are first hearing these words: they have something available to them that the Pharisees do not have. They have the good news of the gospel. The Pharisees have the burden of their laws, but the Jesus people have the yoke of grace.
In the final stages of World War II a large number of American and British solders were languishing in a prison camp deep inside Germany. Some had been there for many months. A high barbed-wire fence ran across the center of the camp, isolating the Americans from the British. They were not allowed to go near the fence or communicate with each other. But once a day at noon, the British and American chaplains were allowed to go to the fence and exchange greetings; always in the company, however, of the German guards with their high-strung dogs on a tight leash.
Unknown to the Germans, the Americans had put together a crude wireless radio and were getting some news from the outside world. The Americans would then share a headline or two with their British counterparts in the few moments they had at the fence. This went on for quite some time.
One day, the news came over the little radio that the German high command had surrendered and the war was over. None of the Germans knew this, since their communication system had broken down. The American chaplains took this news to the British, who immediately went to the barracks and shared the good news with their fellow prisoners.
For the next three days, the prisoners on both sides of the fence celebrated. They waved at the guards, who still had not heard the news, and smiled at the dogs that were present to keep them at bay. Then, when they awoke on the fourth day, the guards and the dogs were gone. Evidently, they had finally heard the news and had fled into the forest, leaving the gate unlocked behind them.
That day, the prisoners walked out as freed men. But that was not when they were set free. That had occurred four days earlier when they first heard the news that the war was over. The British chaplain who told this story said, “That is the power of the gospel – it is news, not advice.”3
So this is not advice that Jesus offers us, it is news… good news. When life is burdened, for whatever reason, Jesus encourages us to walk with him. The yoke he offers is not a single yoke but a double one. When we accept it, we cannot walk our own way, but must go in the direction he determines. We need to understand that.
So don’t be surprised when that journey with Jesus involves rest, a good meal at the table of grace, and a dance that rejoices in his presence. Don’t be surprised when he says to you, “Give to me what is broken in your life and put upon me the burden that you find yourself carrying.” Don’t be surprised when you have something of an out-of-body experience where you find yourself living in him and not by means of your own power.
But then again, maybe you should be surprised by it, since good news often comes to us unexpectedly and not by means of our own ingenuity or strength. God has indeed hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, as Jesus says (go back and read the passage again). Otherwise, it would not be called grace.
“Come to me,” Jesus says, “come to me.” And when you do, expect the unexpected. But regardless of what happens, know that you will never be alone. You will never be alone.
Father, Lord of heaven and earth, we thank you that you have hidden some things from the wise and intelligent and have revealed them to us by means of your unexpected grace. Thank you for Jesus who invites us to come to him. Now, may we do just that, for it is in his name that we pray, Amen.
1cited from Shelley D. Best, Feasting on the Gospels: Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), p. 297.
2this frame of thought comes from Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 18.
3adapted from Bill O’Brien, Living By the Word: “The Blame Game,” The Christian Century, June 28, 2005), p. 20.