“Yoked;” Psalm 46 and Matthew 11:25-30; July 6, 2014, FPC Holt

On Sunday, July 6th I was voted in as the new Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Holt, MI. I am excited for this new adventure and grateful for those who I have ministered alongside at First Presbyterian Church of Jesup.

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

With the Pastor Nominating Committee of Holt

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

David and Me After I was Voted in as Pastor

Here is the sermon I preached that day:

“Yoked”
Psalm 46 & Matthew 11:25-30
July 6, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio available here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/7-6-14.mp3

SLIDE 1 - Three legged raceDo you remember the last time you were in three-legged race? Maybe it was at a large family picnic, maybe it was when you were in the third grade, it might’ve even been this weekend, or for some of our children in the room it was five minutes ago. When you found your partner were you looking for the most athletic of the group? Or someone that you knew will listen to you? Or maybe, were you looking for that person who knew you best, and was willing to work with you as you ran the race together? If you are anything like me you were afraid of how that race would turn out for you, not trusting in your own athletic ability, and worrying about letting someone down.

In our New Testament lesson today, Jesus says, “take my yoke upon you, and learn from me.” The children helped to illustrate this earlier in their three-legged race.

SLIDE 2 - FeetIf you’ve ever been on the sidelines in a three-legged race you’ll see the different techniques. Some will be so focused on the finish line that they seem to just pull the other person along, these pairs often end up tripping each other, which usually results in some sort of yelling or complaining from the faster of the two. Some pairs are very focused on their own feet, they may be trying to match the other, but struggle to find rhythm, not sure how to get going. The ones that usually win are focused more on their partner than on the finish line. You may hear a methodic “Out! In! Out! In!” These winning pairs, like in our children’s sermon, are focused on the same goal and are intentional about communicating with each other.

SLIDE 3 - Finish LIneIt’s not a far leap to see how these different pairs line up with ways that we try to be in community with another. It’s one thing to see these dynamics play out in the microcosm of a game, and quite another to apply these lessons in the larger picture of life together. Sometimes, we really do think that we know what is right, and we might not be willing to take the time to explain it, and end up dragging others along with us. Other times, we try hard to listen to each other and we want to find community and connection, but we’re not willing to lead, to share our vision and to take the work to get others on board. Our healthiest relationships come from willingness to articulate a vision, intention in speaking in ways that others can understand, and communicating clearly as we go about making things happen.

SLIDE 4 - YokeThe unity achieved in these healthy relationships is akin to what the word “yoke” means in our passage. Over time the word “yoke” has taken different connotations, but in order to understand the passage it’s helpful to dig a bit deeper into how this word would be understood in it’s original context. The word “yoke” appears in the Bible about 70 times. In Hebrew it is “oul,” with the simple definition of: “a yoke (as imposed on the neck), literally or figuratively.” In Greek it is the much more fun to day, “zugos,” with meanings of “(to join, especially by a “yoke”); a coupling, i.e. (figuratively) servitude (a law or obligation); also (literally) the beam of the balance (as connecting the scales): — pair of balances, yoke.”

A metallic chain with an explosed link.Many occurrences of “yoke” in the Bible reference it in terms of a yoke of slavery, and speak of a breaking away from it. Reading through passage after passage with this word, you can hear a heaviness to the language, the way that the yoke weighs upon the shoulders that bear it. But in several of the contexts it is more of a yoke of unity than of oppression, some suggesting that Jesus purposefully uses this word to invite the parallel understanding of oppression versus unity to point out how his particular yoke is one that frees them from the oppression of the law and invites them into the freedom of God’s grace.

Yokes are most often thought of in terms of tying two animals together, making them come together towards one goal, channeling their individual energy in one direction. Like in our three-legged race earlier, if two animals are yoked together and are not properly trained in what they are to do once in the yoke, they will not be successful. They may try to pull in opposite directions, buck in disobedience, or simply refuse to move forward. We are often compelled by sin to go in different directions than where God calls us, thinking we know better, or are not in need of that sort of guidance. Jesus frees us from our sins by providing meaning, purpose, and joy in our lives. By choosing to take on Jesus’ yoke, we are partnering with Christ in the goal of expanding the realm of God on earth.

SLIDE 7 – Yoke is EasyLearning to cooperate and communicate with Jesus requires a different pace than what we see in our example of the three-legged race. A yoke is most often seen in the context of work: oxen or horses yoked together to evenly work the fields. Tied together in a three-legged race the goal is to win the race. But yoking together means keeping pace, no matter what the pace may be. If we are yoked to one with a slower pace than our own, we are compelled to slow down. Being yoked to Jesus means we follow Jesus’ example, which was never focused on busyness for the sake of busyness or for the accumulation of wealth for personal gain. Rather, Jesus is focused on value systems that are not of this world: charity for the sake of charity and accumulation of disciples for God’s glory.

SLIDE 8 – Come to Me The yoke Jesus speaks about is not concerned so much with momentum, but rather with rest and stillness. Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest…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.”

Jesus presents a countercultural perspective in our results-oriented world. It draws to light a different application of the yoke. When we are connected to one another, whether it is through an actual physical yoke, through the cooperative action it takes to win a three-legged race, or through Christian community, we are learning from one another even as we work together. When we are each yoked to Christ and focused on the mission of Christ we are also yoked to one another. This yoke enables us to be the people of God while we seek to lead others in becoming the people of God.

free thinkerAs the Apostle Paul was seeking to guide the people of Philippi he urged them to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” and to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves…[looking] not to your own interests, but to the interests of others,” and “[letting] the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”[1]

This call to same-mindedness does not call us to lose our individual identity, but grows from a desire for unity above self, and God’s mission over personal ambition. Essentially Paul is calling the people of Philippi to be yoked together by being of one mind with one another, and to be yoked to Christ by being of one mind with Jesus.

SLIDE 10 - Gods CallWhen you hand over control of your life through being yoked with Christ, you submit to God’s call on your life, which can perhaps lead to a call to seminary, one to serve a rural church, another to marry the person you love, and another to serve God in a different capacity, perhaps as an associate pastor in Holt, MI.

If our motivation is self-preservation or self-promotion, we carry the full weight of our fears of inadequacy and powerlessness. But when we are yoked with Christ and share in Christ’s mission we are accompanied by a power greater than all of our fears.

IFIn our Psalm today, Psalm 46, we hear of this larger perspective: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

SLIDE 12 – UnsureWhat is it that causes your life to seem unsteady? What things take the place of Christ in the yoke that guides your direction? What is it that seems beyond your capacity? What if you stopped trying to carry this burden on your own? Could you learn to trust God with even your deepest fears and inadequacies?

SLIDE 13 - Jesus HandThe good news is our God is not some detached higher power in a galaxy far far away, but our God is a God who comes close through Jesus Christ, who abides with us through the Holy Spirit.

When we are walking yoked with God’s own self, we are trusting God to be God. We are not trying to be God or to pretend like know more than God or to limit another’s understanding of God. We are simply seeking to keep pace, to learn from what God seeks to reveal in our lives. The Psalmist says what we sang together earlier, “Be still, and know that I am God!” May we learn this stillness and trust in God’s sovereignty. Amen.

 

[1] Philippians 2:2-5

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting; February 17, 2013, FPC Jesup

“Hungry for God;” Lenten Practices: Fasting
Isaiah 58:1-12 and Luke 4:1-15
February 17, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Slide04Throughout the season of Lent we are discussing various spiritual practices in the hopes that practicing these things will allow us to grow closer to God. Part of this series is the idea of unpacking a bit of our preconceptions about these practices, seeking to understand them them over the span of history, and learning ways that we might incorporate them into our lives. I would say that today’s practice is simultaneously one of the simplest practices to do and the most complicated to understand.

SLIDE 2 - Dont EatIn the most basic definition fasting is to go a length of time where you do not eat. This is a practice that Jesus himself engaged in when he went into the wilderness and was tempted by the devil.

Thousands of years of history have given much depth and complication to this practice. Slide03 Many translate this ancient discipline into “giving up something” for Lent. People give up sugar, pop, chocolate. For some it becomes a sort of restart on New Years Resolutions, personal self-improvement projects. But Biblical fasting has a longer and richer history that encompasses much more than simply giving up on a treat that we might enjoy.

Slide04In Jewish tradition, the Day of Atonement is commemorated each year. This day is practices through fasting from both food and work. In Leviticus 23:27-28 it says:

“Now, the tenth day of this seventh month is the day of atonement; it shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the LORD’S offering by fire you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the LORD your God.“

Slide05The word that is translated as “deny yourselves,” can also be translated as to oppress, humiliate, or afflict. All words that we justifiably cast in a negative light. To oppress, humiliate, or afflict anyone else is a terrible thing. But in this context, one is doing that to themselves. This doesn’t mean that they are harming themselves or making a fool of themselves, but rather that they are putting themselves last, they are putting aside their own needs for the sake of others out of devotion to God. This fast was not just to be a fast from food and work for the sake of the law, but it is meant to be a fast from self interest.

Slide06In our Old Testament passage today in Isaiah we hear the result of the fasting of the Jewish community, many years removed from the original intention.  The prophet Isaiah confronts the grumbling of the God’s people who have forgotten the purpose of the fast.  I can almost hear a mocking tone in his voice as he echoes the complaints of the people in verse three:

“Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”

Slide07When I was in high school, my youth group participated each year in the 30 Hour Famine. Since Isaiah preaches against telling people about fasting, we weren’t exactly on track with the original intent of this event by having it organized and publicized, and I’m getting even further off track by talking about it now, BUT the intent of the event was to fast in order to raise awareness about world hunger. In the thirty hours of the fast we watched movies and played games like a typical lock-in, worshipped together, and went into the community and gathered food from church members for the local food pantry. Let me tell you, gathering food, while simultaneously not being able to eat any of it was a difficult thing to do. As a high schooler participating in this fast, I don’t know that I verbalized my frustrations at fasting, and my hunger throughout the day, but I certainly was grumbling in my mind as my stomach kept on growling. And I wanted those thirty hours to mean something, to lead to some great epiphany in my walk with Christ. I wanted to get something out of it. Essentially, I found myself praying prayers that sounded much more like whining than like devotion.

Isaiah confronts his audience, saying:

“Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting, as you do today, will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?”

Slide09In this community, fasting had become a showy thing to do, people debasing themselves with sackcloth and ashes, looking forlorn and sad. When they were doing this they were not doing it out of self-denial, but rather in a way that drew more attention to their actions, trying to receive praise for how religious they were being.

In verses six and seven, Isaiah points to a better fast:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Thomas Currie, dean of the Charlotte, NC campus of my seminary wrote about this saying, “’Why do we fast, but you do not see?’ is the question of an anxious idolatry eager to make God ‘useful,’ worshiping God for the sake of something else, in this case, one’s own salvation. Lusting for such a possibility was the great threat that continually confronted Israel and continues to tempt us today…all desire the power to save themselves. The form of fasting that God chooses is strangely free of this affliction. It is distinguished from idolatry in its lack of anxiety. It is free to engage another, to see the other, and to see the other not as something to be used or merely as an object of pity or duty, but as a gift…In the presence of [God] we are saved from the loneliness of our self-justifying ways, even as we are forbidden to give ultimate loyalty to our own agendas, however pious or political. Instead, we are invited to receive ourselves and others as gifts, discovering in God’s engagement with us a life that can only be a life together.”[1]

Slide14Our New Testament passage today tells the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, a time that we mirror in the church calendar through the forty days of Lent. Forty is an important number in the history of the church, particularly in terms of wilderness. When a flood came over the earth, Noah and his family waited out the storm on that animal crowded boat for forty days. Moses led the Israelites for forty years in the wilderness. For forty days Jesus, himself spent forty days in the wilderness with the devil, where he was tempted and tested. In each of these three narratives there is wilderness, God’s presence is experienced, and it is in preparation for a greater thing that is coming: the promise of God’s protection in a new world, the promised land awaiting God’s people, and the promise of salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection.

There will be times in our lives where our circumstances force us into the wilderness, but rarely do we intentionally choose wilderness. Like the story of Little Red Riding Hood being told not to go off the path, we have heard over and over again that choosing the harder path will certainly lead to tragedy. Fasting is a wilderness practice. It is something that we do that separates us from the conventional “path,” leading us into the wilderness. Choosing to go without something that is life giving is choosing to be less-than, choosing to be outcast. But remember the lesson of Isaiah’s audience: this wilderness is not to be chosen for the sake of being outcasts, but for the sake of putting outcasts before ourselves.

SLIDE 15 - Presbyterians TodayAs God’s humor would have it, after I had decided that the Lenten sermon series would be on spiritual practices and planned out the various weeks, we received this month’s “Presbyterian’s Today.” This whole issue is based on spiritual practices, with a special article on fasting. In it, Dave Peterson, pastor of Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church in Houston writes of his own experiences with regular fasting, he says:

“We don’t fast to impress people or to demonstrate our piety or our zeal; we don’t fast to get something from God. There will likely be other benefits to fasting, but its central motive is simply fellowship with God.” [2]

When we spend time focusing on God, rather than our own needs and self-interest, God’s will will hopefully come to the surface.

As Jesus was being tempted in the wilderness, our New Testament passage tells us in Luke 4:5-7 that:

“the devil led [Jesus] up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’”Slide16

Like a mirage in the desert, the devil is offering things that he cannot promise. Who wants all the kingdoms of the world when you can be a part of the kingdom of heaven?

When we fast we acknowledge that there are things that the nourishment of this world cannot provide, that the food of this world is only temporary, and that the substance of God is eternal. If we can get past the physical hunger, a deeper hunger gets satisfied.

The real question of the practice is: when you give up something, who is it benefiting? If we are fasting to try to earn God’s favor or to show how religious we can be, we are fasting in vain. Fasting is not for our glorification, but for the glorification of God.

SLIDE 17 - JesusChrist fasted in the desert and was tempted throughout those forty days, but his faithfulness did not waver, no matter what was offered to him. He knew that anything the devil had to give, was far less than what was found in God’s eternal kingdom. In this action he foreshadowed his faithfulness on the cross: the ultimate emptying of oneself. And all of God’s created people benefitted from his self-denial.

In the better fast that Isaiah describes we are being called into a change of our mindset, we are called to take up something that’s going to benefit someone else. We are called to deny the temporary pleasures of this world, for the ultimate future of salvation. May we embrace this, the better fast, throughout Lent and into the rest of our lives. Amen.


[1] Thomas W. Currie, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, p. 4

[2] Dave Peterson, Presbyterians Today, January/February 2013, p. 23