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I was at CBOQ's Assembly last week and Tim McCoy, the Executive Director, was interviewing a missionary from the Middle East. He was talking about what he had been learning as he watched more and more of his neighbours turn to Jesus and he said: 'We learned that we had to stop preaching Christianity and start preaching Christ'. I thought this was quite profound. Reading our Scripture passage shows me that this is not only a problem in modern society but has been a struggle even before Jesus set foot here on earth.
As children, we sang that song 'Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so' and we knew it was true. It's a simple truth. A simple truth that can be difficult to hold on to. We come to church to learn about Jesus. We sit in Sunday school and take everything in with a sense of joy and wonder. For some reason keeping that sense of joy and wonder can be difficult. As we grow in knowledge and learn about sin and guilt and life, the love of Jesus can be overshadowed in our minds by our own inadequacies. The state of the world around us can cause our eyes to look downward and lose focus on God. In dance, you have this thing called a ‘spot’ or ‘spotting’. It describes a focal point that you keep your eyes on as you turn. When you have a good spot, you can do sixteen pirouettes in a row. But if your eyes wander from that focal point, you get dizzy, you lose balance, and eventually, you fall over.
When Jesus came around there was a big problem with religious leaders being, what we would call today, legalistic and judgmental. We read about the Pharisees and the Sadducees and we know that they weren't quite hitting the mark. In their defense, they had a fairly difficult task in promoting the upholding of the law. Not only did they have to obey the law, but they had to figure out what it meant to keep Torah while living under Roman rule. If you look at the book of Leviticus you can read all the requirements for the Israelites in their daily tasks and their worship of the Lord.
I found of particular interest the 'Ordination offering' that was required. On Ordination day, Aaron was to present to the Lord a 'grain offering of two quarts of choice flour, half to be offered in the morning, and half to be offered in the evening. It must be carefully mixed with olive oil and cooked on a griddle. Then slice this grain offering and present it as a pleasing aroma to the Lord.' That's just the offering. There's also a whole procedure for ordination day that involves washing in water, putting on robes, pouring oil, and sacrificing a bull, a ram, and a second ram. Then there's more anointing and finally some eating.
There are also rules regarding food, clothing, diseases, celebrations, punishments, human relationships and the list goes on for 27 chapters. The religious leaders felt it was their job to enforce these commands. Unfortunately, in doing so, the purpose of the commands was lost. These rules were designed so that the Israelites would display God's glory and lead holy lives. They were designed so that God's people would be set apart from everyone else. Others would notice this different way of life and realize, oh those are Yahweh's people. They're different. They don't sacrifice their children or steal or go around murdering earth other. They honour their elders. They care for the orphans and widows among them. They rest from their work once a week. The law that God gave was meant for the good of his people but the problem with this was that it was left in the hands of a human institution. It became less about the people and more about the rules. So what did God do? He sent his Son.
God came down. Jesus came to us as a revelation of God the Father. The word used for 'son' in verse 27 is a word that refers to the Revealer and Redeemer and encapsulates the idea of John 1; The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, or as The Message reads, God moved into the neighbourhood. Jesus shows up and people think he's going to do one of two things. The religious leaders, those who are law-constrained, think that he should be enforcing the law or at least observing it. This is why they get all bent out of shape when he starts healing people on the Sabbath. Then there are others, those who are law-weary, that have given up altogether and think the law should be thrown out. Jesus has another way. Jesus came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He loved and obeyed the law and he kept Torah while living under the curse of humanity. This was something that no one else could do. In doing so, Jesus satisfied the requirements of the law and brought it to fulfillment. Where does that leave us? Under God's gracious will.
God's gracious will is for us to be righteous. This does not mean that the good things we do will make us right with God. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ that we are saved. It does mean that God’s Spirit in us and Christ's love in us will produce a righteousness that reflects the Saviour.
That's where our promise of Rest comes in. Come to me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest. We find rest in God alone as he is revealed in Christ. This should be reflected in our worship, in our ministries, in our every day. Human striving does not lead to rest because we can't be righteous on our own. If we try, we often become tired, bitter, and skeptical. We become weary. That's when Christ invites us to his Rest Stop. Come, take a load off. Rest in me. You're carrying a burden I didn't ask you to bear. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
During Jesus' time, the rabbis would often refer to their religion as the yoke of the law. This would have been good imagery for those listening because they were used to seeing oxen plough the fields with a yoke tying them together. The yoke would often be tailored specifically to fit the necks of the oxen. When Jesus says 'my yoke is easy', he's not saying that this Way of life he's calling us to is easy because it's not. He's saying that his yoke will fit you. It may feel awkward at first, but the more you work alongside him and learn about who he is, the more familiar you will become with that yoke. You will step into his rhythm. And the result is that you will find rest for your soul. This is a good prayer for us to pray for each other - that we will find rest for our souls.
RESTING IN GOD
Our passage in Hebrews outlines how we can enter the rest of God. The preacher to the Hebrews is addressing a congregation that is law-weary. Their hands are tired of being lifted up in worship, their knees are weak from kneeling, and they’ve had enough of the church routine. They are disillusioned. One author says that “tired of walking the walk, many of them are considering taking a walk, leaving the community, and falling away from the faith”. So what does the preacher do? He preaches! He knows that what the people need to hear is Scripture – the living voice of the Holy Spirit today. The congregation needs to hear these words because their hearts have been hardened. They stopped trusting in God’s promises of redemption. They’re looking for a more attractive story. Perhaps a story with more action and that finishes in a timely manner. They’re tired of the same old same old and they want something different.
The preacher then brings them back to basics. He brings them back to the promise of God’s rest. God has promised us rest and it is there for us to step into. How do we take that step? The first way to do this is by looking back. We read through God’s word and we look at all the ways his people failed to rest in him. The Bible is full is wisdom and positive examples but it also has stories of people who are examples of what not to do. I’m sure we can also look back at our own personal history and find examples of times where we failed to rest in God. History is a great teacher.
We also look ahead. We look ahead to the time when all suffering and disease and evil will be swallowed up and replaced with new life. We look ahead to the day when all creation will be redeemed. We trust that no matter what is going on in our world, God’s promise that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord will come to pass.
Finally, we recognize that God’s rest is available for us today. We rest today in a calm assurance that we are participating in God’s will. Verse three tells us that “his works were finished from the foundation of the world”. Even at the beginning, there was a sense of completeness. God didn’t rest because he was tired. He rested because the work was complete. And even though we are still in the middle time, we can find peace in that completion. As we live in the present, while looking backward and forward, we are to act out the gospel. We are to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour. This is the work of the church and its work that is done through the power of the Holy Spirit. We can rest in the knowledge that it’s not us doing the work but Christ in us. We can rest in the knowledge that we are a part of history and God’s redemptive work was happening before we were here and will continue to happen after we have gone.
This rest is for our souls and our minds. And of course, because everything is connected, we need to include rest for our bodies. Verse ten and eleven say “so then, a Sabbath rest still remains for the people of God, for those who enter God’s rest, cease from their labours as God did from his. Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs”. God rested on the 7th day and you’ll notice in Genesis 2 that the seventh day is the only day where evening and morning are not recorded. There a sense of being outside of time and part of that seventh day is looking forward to the time of completion when there is no more hunger or tears or death. God calls this seventh day holy and blesses it. Despite the fact that we are still surrounded by hunger and tears and death, we are called to set a day apart as holy and to take time to rest. We need a day to rest from work. We need a Sabbath.
Having a day of rest is no longer a part of North American culture. I used to watch Little House on the Prairie and I remember their Sundays as days that they would go to church, come home and sit. No cooking or cleaning or farming or playing or talking. The only activity that was allowed was reading the Bible. I’m not suggesting that should be our goal but it’s a problem that we live in a culture that promotes busyness and leaves rest as an afterthought. Have you seen those lottery commercials where they ask people what they would do if they were to win the next jackpot? Most of the time, the answer is “I would go on a vacation”. That’s when we rest right? On vacation. What if we were to be different? What if we were to work rhythms of rest into our lives on a weekly basis? A daily basis? Vacations are great but Sabbath is about more than getting away.
Sabbath rest is not so much about being restored as it is about being re-storied. During Sabbath we are reminded of who God is and of who we are. We are reminded of our part in God’s story. We’re invited to be still and know that he is God. When we don’t have those pauses from our routines, we grow weary. We confuse who we are with who God is as we try to re-write the story. And then when the story doesn’t go as we had hoped, we harden our hearts. We fall into disobedience. We blame God, we blame church, we blame each other.
But the gentle voice of Jesus continues to call to us. Come to me, 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.” God is not offering us a lottery ticket. He is offering us a gift.
Take up the yoke of Christ. Take up the yoke of the one who is calling you to rest in him. Receive this gift of Sabbath. For it is in his name that all the promises of God find their yes and through him we utter our Amen to God for his glory.