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The First Congregational Church, Columbus
August 29, 2004 - 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Ron Botts preaching
Light Religion
Exodus 1:8-14; Matthew 11:28-30

When you go to the grocery store today everything is "light." Light mayonnaise, light creamer, light beer. One estimate is that there are over a thousand products on food shelves with "light" in their name. The term usually refers to less calories and fat, and so implies that you can have your cake and eat it, too. It's supposed to be the easy way to weight control and good health, but then not if you eat twice as much.

We Americans love a way to do something without the usual effort. After WWII the greatest desire was to fill our houses with as many labor-saving devices as we could afford. So we delighted in having a power lawn mower, a dishwasher, self-defrosting refrigerator, gas heat instead of stoking coal.

Today we have all this electronic gadgetry. How many of us would be willing to give up our remote controls? Now if someone could just figure a way so that we didn't have to go to all the effort of raising our arm and pointing it at the set, we'd have it made.

I guess you can't fault us for wanting easier ways to do things. Few people stuck with horses when automobiles proved to be faster and more comfortable. But is a shortcut possible for everything? Is there a "light" way for doing all things?

The Gospels give us some insight here. Jesus recognized that the light and easy way can sometimes become the burdensome and hard way, and that the seemingly difficult way may actually be the easy way in the long run. He summarized this apparent contradiction in the familiar words from today's New Testament scripture, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

These words were spoken to a people who knew what hard life was. From the ancient days of bondage in Egypt, the Jews knew pain and suffering first-hand. In Exodus it tells us that "the Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service…." So it was natural on their part that they would seek God's favor in order to have an easier life, free of the oppression and uncertainty of their past.

"Come to me all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens," Jesus said, "and I will give you rest." These words might be understood in a number of ways, but one interpretation could be in reaction to the burden that religious Law placed on the people. Jewish Law was regarded as the do's and don'ts of faithful living. It described in intricate detail how a God-centered life should be lived. There was so much to the Law that it was impossible to keep it all in one's head.

Consider, for example, these instructions for ritual cleansing before eating. "Take at least a quarter log of water, that is, a measure equal to one and one-half eggshells of liquid. Hold the hands with the fingertips upward and pour the water over them until it runs down the wrists. Cleanse the palm of each hand with the fist of the other, then hold the hands with the finger pointing down, and pour the rest of the water on them from the wrists downwards so that it runs off at the fingertips." All this just to prepare to eat in a way thought to be favorable to God.

No wonder the Israelites might have felt overburdened by their religion. If one were conscientious, such as the Pharisees tried to be, there was a never-ending list of regulations to remember. Maybe that's what made the Pharisees so grumpy. The legalism of rules and laws can be hard to bear. What was envisioned as making life easier by distinguishing right from wrong and establishing ritualized behavior, might also make the relationship with God harder than it needed to be.

It's clear from the Gospels that Jesus didn't keep the Law in the same strict way as others did. That's one reason his actions were challenged repeatedly by those who considered themselves arbiters of the faith. By comparison to them, Jesus must have seemed lax. What's more, he was unrepentant in his behavior. He healed on the Sabbath. He ate with sinners. He ignored many of the rituals. To the legalists what more needed to be said? Jesus wasn't worthy to be regarded as a spiritual leader of his people.

"If this is the burden you're chaffing under," Jesus says in essence, "then come and I'll give you rest from it." Another translation for the word "rest" is refreshment, and maybe it even works a little better here. "Come if the traditional requirements of faith are heavy on the mind and a drain to the soul, and I will refresh you."

He also said, "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…." A yoke was made of wood and was typically put on the necks of oxen to harness their energy to perform some task. A carpenter of the day would have been called upon quite often to make such yokes for the farmers of his village. So if Jesus followed the trade of his father as a young man, he would have fashioned many of these himself from the native hardwood.

"Come, take my yoke upon you… for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." What Jesus did was to invite them to take off this burden of the yoke of the Law and exchange it for one he offered, like shedding heavy oak and replacing it with balsa. The contrast, he asserted, would be that evident. "Come and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart…."

What Jesus asked of people then, what Jesus asks of us now, is not the burden of rule-keeping. There are no great volumes of books that must be carried around, no constant interpretations that must be sought. Faith, according to Jesus, is much simpler than that. He invited his hearers to shed the familiar approach to God they were accustomed to and to replace it with a more direct response.

I've thought about what words might convey, in the simplest way possible, what Jesus wants us to do. This is what I've come up with as to the sum of his teaching:

"Love God and live right." That's it. It's that easy and that clear. "Love God and live right." That's basically all there is to our faith. The burden is light in that respect. "Love God and live right." All of us can remember that. Doing it, however, is going to take everything you've got.

What Jesus asks of us is commitment. It's work, but it's the most rewarding work we'll ever be given. It's walking alongside Jesus and being concerned about the things he's concerned with, attending to the needs he stops to deal with, standing up for the things he gave his life for.

In this simplicity of faith don't be fooled into thinking it is simplistic. This is not a faith built on ignorance. You have to be fully aware of the lessons the Bible teaches us. You have to be aware of the great issues of life which swirl around us. You have to be aware of people and their needs. Faith, though, is concerned about love and not legality. Learn all you can about what Jesus teaches us, consider the breadth of its implications, then dare to follow the tug that Jesus puts on your heart.

Everything, you see, gets reversed in Christ. Light is heavy and heavy is light. Rules are lifted so that one can truly live right. Earning God's favor is replaced by understanding that God's love is already given. Living a responsible life is less in meeting the minimal requirements than responding in the maximum way.

Today many seek churches which will tell them what to do in every instance, preachers who seem to have the rule-keeping pipeline from God. It seems simpler to be told what to do than to decide it for yourself. But that kind of simple becomes hard quickly.

"Come to me each one of you who feels the weight of the world upon your shoulders, and I will refresh you. I will lift the human-imposed requirements off you and replace them with what God wants. I will give you strength for living today and for facing whatever will come tomorrow. Trust in me for what I want you to do will take your best, but it will be light when you and I do it together."

Love God and live right.


Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church