Thursday, May 15, 2008

If I Were a Cow ... - Matthew 11:20-30

KNU International English Church
Josh Broward

May 18, 2008

If I were a cow …

If I were a cow, I wouldn’t want to be a milk cow. On the plus side, I’d get the cool black and white hide. On the down side, most of life is spent in a barn, hooking your udders up to some machine. Granted, milk is pretty important, but I wouldn’t want the meaning of my life to consist of a morning bowl of cereal for hungry 5 year olds.

And if I were a cow, I would not want to be a feed cow. My grandparents raised beef cattle, and I’ve seen that kind of life. They spend all day just eating and walking and sleeping. Unless of course you’re a bull. Then, you’re life is all about eating and having sex – both as often as possible. That doesn’t sound too bad at first, but after a while it would get pretty boring. All in all, the total meaning of life is to make more beef for other people to eat. That’s not for me.

If I were a cow, I would want some work to do. I would want my life to mean something. I would want to get out there and do something. I would want to be an ox. As a nice bonus, I’d get a cool set of horns. Seriously, though. Hook me to a yoke – that’s the big wooden thing connecting the two oxen – and let’s go do something. Let’s plow a field, pull a wagon, harvest some grain. Whatever, but let’s do something, not just sit around chewing our cud.

And if I were a cow, I would want a good yoke. You know how you can get blisters or corns from a pair of shoes that don’t fit right. Same thing with yokes. A bad yoke can really mess you up – if you’re a cow.

If you want a good yoke for your cow, you can’t just walk down to the market and buy a ready made yoke. It might fit. It might not.

Getting a good yoke is like getting a good wedding dress. It takes time. You have to bring your ox to the carpenter. The carpenter measures every part of your ox, from top to bottom, front to back. The carpenter uses those measurements to carve out the basic shape of the yoke. Then, you have to bring your ox back for a fitting. The carpenter puts the yoke on your ox. He carefully looks over every bump, every groove of skin, every part of bone sticking out. He marks every detail on the yoke and carves away all the imperfections. Finally, he gets out the file and rubs off every tiny bump, every sharp edge, every splinter, until the yoke is perfectly smooth and perfectly fitted to your ox.[1]

If I were a cow, I would want Jesus to make my yoke. Seriously. Jesus was a carpenter or a builder. There is an ancient legend that Jesus made the best yokes in Galilee. The story goes that Jesus was famous for making good yokes, that people from all over Galilee came to Jesus’ little shop in Nazareth to get custom-made yokes for their oxen. He seemed to have such a deep love and concern for the animals themselves that he went out of his way to make a perfectly fitting yoke. Some people even say that the sign over the door of Jesus’ carpenters shop might have said, “My yokes fit well.”[2]

Yep. If I were a cow, I would want to be an ox. I would want a good yoke, and I would want Jesus to make it.

READ: MATTHEW 11:20-30.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in Jesus.

It was hard for John the Baptist. He was the first prophet in hundreds of years. He was “a voice shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord! (Mt. 3:3) He preached that God would come like a thunderstorm with an axe in one hand and fire in the other hand.[3] (See Mt. 3:7-12.) In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, John expected “a tidal wave of a Messiah … someone … impossible to miss,” overwhelming everyone with the goodness and justice of God. But “what John got instead was a steady drip of mercy from a man named Jesus, in whom plenty of people saw no Messiah at all.”[4] John sent a message to Jesus, “Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” (Mt. 11:3).

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in Jesus.

Haven’t you ever wanted to see a miracle? Or lightning from heaven or a vision of angels? Haven’t you ever wanted to experience some dramatic event that would put to rest all your doubts about God? But would that really help us really believe in Jesus? Would it give us the kind of faith that changes the way we live?

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in Jesus.

It was hard even for the people where Jesus did most of his miracles. They saw lots of miracles: “the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor” (Mt. 11:5). That ought to do it, right? How many miracles does it take to cause life-changing faith? One? Two? Seven? Twenty-seven? I don’t know, but the people of Korazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum never got there. They saw Jesus do miracle after miracle, but they still wouldn’t put their trust in Jesus and learn his way of life. They saw his miracles, but they still rejected his message.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe in Jesus. Maybe it always is.

Why is that? Why is it so hard to put our trust in Jesus? Why is it so hard to really live life Jesus’ way?

Jesus says smart people are the most likely to miss out here. Jesus thanks God for hiding his message from “those who think themselves wise and clever,” from the “sophisticates and know-it-alls,” from the intelligent and educated. We’re in trouble here. We probably have one of the most educated churches in the world. Almost every person in this room has either graduated from university or will in the next 10 years. Many of us are “Masters” or “Doctors” in our fields. We are clearly smart and educated.

When it comes to God, sometimes all of our education and intelligence can get in our way. Don’t get me wrong here. I believe in study and in thinking the hard thoughts, but sometimes we have to put all of that aside and fall at the feet of Jesus like a little child and say, “I trust. I have questions. I have doubts. My educated mind is still processing all of this, but I trust. I trust you Jesus.”

Here’s the deal. Jesus says everything centers on him. Jesus is the very center of the universe. Everything revolves around him and is drawn to him. If you want to know God, go to Jesus. If you want a good life, go to Jesus. If you want inner peace, go to Jesus.

Jesus gives us an inside look on God. He has unique knowledge of the Father, and he uniquely represents the Father’s heart.

What do we see when we look at Jesus? What is the heart of God like? “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … I am humble and gentle at heart … you will find rest for your souls” (Mt. 11:28-29).

At the heart of Jesus, we see the heart of God: humble and gentle love. The heart of God is humble love that serves others and brings healing and rest into their lives. This is Jesus. This is God.

It’s not overwhelming. It’s not a thunderbolt. It’s simple. It’s gentle. It’s real. God loves. God humbly and gently loves the whole world one person at time. Jesus humbly and gently gave healing and grace to one person at a time – one little miracle at a time, one little meal at a time, one little word at a time.

Then, Jesus does that thing that makes us love him and hate him at the same time. He says something that’s true but doesn’t make sense. “Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you … and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light” (Mt. 11:29-30).

Wait a minute. I thought Jesus was going to take our burdens away, right? We’re tired and carry heavy burdens. We come to Jesus, and he gives us rest – by taking the burdens away, right? Yes, but there’s more.

When we come to Jesus, when we put our trust in Jesus, we have to take off our old yoke. And we all have an old yoke. We all have that old way of life, that old way of trying to make things work in the same old way: working harder, doing more, buying more, playing more, praying more – whatever, we all have that old yoke, and if we’re honest, it’s wearing us out. Deep inside we are all straining and struggling to find meaning in our lives.

What do we do with that inner anxiety, that inner despair? Different yokes for different folks.

n Some of us hitch up to the yoke of success: study or work all day, all night. Damn the wife. Damn the kids. I’m doing this all for them anyway, right?

n Some of us choose the yoke of pleasure: play the pain away, stuff our minds with comedy, drama, sex, horror, anything to push away that inner anxiety.

n Some of us yoke up to stuff: more money, bigger house, more techie toys.

n Some of us yoke up to religion: pray more, read more, give more, study more, do more, be more, work your way into heaven. This is probably my greatest temptation.

n Some of us yoke up to cynicism: doubt everything and everyone, stand aloof, be superior by being critical, if everything is wrong then I never have to commit, and if I never commit then I can never be hurt.

These old yokes become our way of life. They become the glasses through which we see the world, what Bible scholars call “our interpretive lens.”

If we come to Jesus, we’ve got to get rid of those old yokes and take on his new yoke. Here’s the good news: Jesus’ yoke fits us perfectly, but it doesn’t fit over the top of an old yoke. What Jesus expects from each one of us is custom made for each one of us, but we can’t have Jesus and materialism, Jesus and workaholism, Jesus and cynicism, Jesus and legalism. It’s one or the other.

Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you.” Here’s the thing that we forget most of the time. Jesus yoke is a two cow yoke. Sure, Jesus is the carpenter who made the yoke, but Jesus is also the other cow. There’s one slot for Jesus and one slot for us.

Barbara Brown Taylor preached a sermon on this passage called, “The Open Yoke,” and she explains it like this: “Jesus is standing there right in front of us, half of a shared yoke across his own shoulders, the other half wide open and waiting for us, a yoke that requires no more than that we step into it and become part of a team.”[5]

Jesus is not a hard-hearted farmer snapping his whip into our backsides telling us to pull harder or to go faster. Jesus is the ox next to us, pulling our load along with us. Jesus has taken the yoke of humble love upon his back. He is teaching us how to carry this yoke by walking right along with us. We learn by watching Jesus and doing it with him.

How do we walk the walk of humble love? How do we take Jesus yoke upon us? A good place to start is with these basic words from Jesus. Look for those who are tired and carry heavy burdens, and see how you can give them rest. How can you relieve some of their burdens? How can you step into that yoke with them and help them pull for a while?

But how is this an easy burden? How is this light? How does this give us rest or heal our souls? This is the great mystery of the gospel. God doesn’t call you to be like me or Matt or Samuel or SuJin. God calls you to be you with Jesus.

God has a tailor-made life for you, a custom-made yoke for you. Your job is to find out how what you do best matches what the world needs most. Frederick Buechner put it like this: “The place where God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[6] You figure out what fires up your passions and makes your heart sing and find a way to make that connect with the needs of hurting people around you. Then, you do that. Give your life to that. It won’t be a burden because it makes your heart sing. It will be work, but it will be work that heals your soul.

William Barclay, an old British scholar, tells a story of a man who saw a little boy carrying a smaller boy on his back because the smaller boy had a crippled leg and couldn’t walk. The man said, “That’s a heavy burden for you to carry.”

The boy answered, “That’s not a heavy burden … That’s my wee brother.”[7]

Before I came to Korea, I was shopping in Wal-Mart, and my cashier was obviously a recent immigrant from Africa. (I can’t remember which country.) If you know me, you know I’ll ask anybody anything. The store wasn’t busy, so we started talking. He told me that he had been in America for about a year, and that he worked two jobs for a total of 80 hours a week. He told me that he lived with several other Africans in one house to save money. And every month, he sent 90% of his money back to his family in Africa. I asked him why he did this. He was smiling a real, genuine smile the whole time we were talking, but this time, he smiled especially big and said, “They are my family, and they have nothing.”

“For my yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.”

If I were a cow …

Let me finish we some good news and some bad news.

Bad news: We’re all cows.

Good news: We get to choose which kind of cow we are.

Bad news: We all have yokes, even if you can’t see them.

Good news: We get to choose which kind of yoke we wear.

Bad news: Jesus calls us to change our lives. Jesus calls us to give up our old yokes, our old ways of doing things, our old ways of making sense of the world, our old ways of feeling good about ourselves. Jesus calls us to lay all of that down and take up a new yoke – Jesus’ yoke of humble love.

More bad news: This is harder than it sounds. Trusting Jesus is hard. Humble love isn’t very logical. Hard work, hard play, hard cash – these are logical. Taking up Jesus’ yoke involves a leap of faith. We have to put our questions aside and fall at Jesus’ feet and trust his way of humble love.

Good news: Jesus’ yoke of humble love gives rest to our souls. It heals us from the inside out. It is still work, but there is just something about humbly loving and serving our world that makes us right inside. Jesus’ yoke is the way to life.

More good news: Jesus is there in the yoke with us, teaching us to be humble, helping us to love. We don’t have to do this by ourselves. We have each other, and we have Jesus.

If you were a cow … what kind of cow would you be?

If you were a cow … what kind of yoke would you choose?

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 2, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), 11.

[4] Ibid, 12.

[5] Taylor, 21.

[6] Quoted by Elizabeth Steele, “How Responding to People’s Needs Hurts the Church,” Congregations, (Alban: Spring 2008), 14-15.

[7] Barclay, 18.

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