"The Yoke of Peace"
Sermon preached June 30, 1996
When Jesus invited anyone who would listen to lay down their heavy burdens and take up his "yoke," I wonder if this episode from Jeremiah wasn't in the back of his mind. Furthermore, I wonder if those who heard this call made a connection between Jesus and the Old Testament prophet. Both spoke of a yoke, though in Jeremiah's case it was anything but an easy or light burden.
Can you imagine this man wandering the streets of Jerusalem wearing that outrageous costume? If I had been his brother, I might've been embarrassed by him, perhaps denying any blood relation. At God's command he was playing the fool. The yoke he wore represented bad news: the coming exile of God's people - wearing a yoke imposed by a foreign tyrant, forced to live far from home. Back in Jeremiah's day, those were frightening images. They still are. Not only did this yoke imply the death of a way of life, it also suggested the loss of a sense of identity. When you lay down your life, pack up the pieces and move on to God only knows where, that's not just an embarrassment, it's a nightmare.
As things turned out, Jeremiah's yoke became a reality for the people of Jerusalem, in spite of the misguided analysis of the false prophet Hananiah. Hananiah wasn't totally wrong, you know, his timing was just off by about 50 years. God did eventually break the yoke of Nebuchadnezzar, and bring an end to the Babylonian exile, through the Persian King Cyrus - but that's another story.
What needs to be pointed out, though, is that this nightmare turned out for the best in the long run. After all, the exile was one of the most creative periods in the life of God's people. Much of the Old Testament as we know it was written or assembled during this time. It was this Word that helped fashion a new identity for the children of Israel. They became people of "The Book." Jeremiah's yoke lead to Shalom, to God's peace. It certainly was not an easy route, though.
Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God." (Matthew 5:9) He didn't say, "Blessed are those who keep the peace," that is, those who maintain the illusion of peace, who wear a happy face and try to avoid conflict. No, he said, "Happy are those who make peace."
Peacemaking is messy business, my friends. It involves rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty, if you will. Often, it's pretty uncomfortable. After all, who among us likes conflict? I don't.
I spoke with a young woman the other week who shared that she needed to resign from her position as a church leader, for health reasons. "My Doctor told me the stress of being between warring factions was aggravating some of my medical problems," she said. I believed her. Who needs more stress? Conflict in the church (of all places) is often the hardest to deal with - because we're supposed to love each other, right?
Well, some of the toughest conflicts in our world are between religious people. Northern Ireland is a bit less of battle zone now than it once was, but the fighting parties are still both Christian: Catholic and Protestant. Two of the three contending groups in Bosnia are Christian: Orthodox and Catholic. The ethnic carnage in Rwanda a few years back involved Christians fighting Christians. This is not to imply that all other religions are blameless. There's enough blame to spread around equally. Still applicable, though, is the "modest proposal" once shared by M.R. Zigler, a Brethren peacemaker from a previous generation: "that Christians would refrain from killing each other."
That sounds good on paper but, you know, it involves hard work. Peacemaking, after all, is not a passive endeavor. This is something we Brethren have struggled with for a long time. Does our "Peace Witness" solely mean "non-resistance," that is, refraining from fighting, not taking up arms against others, as in the military? Or does it also mean "non-violent resistance," actively working for Peace, seeking out better alternatives, being peace-makers, not merely peace-keepers? You can tell by the way I just worded the questions that I believe our Peace Witness involves both non-resistance and non-violent resistance. However, neither option is easy.
Maybe this is why we are sometimes embarrassed by this witness. Peacemaking can lead to some real nightmares, whether we're thinking of distant lands in conflict, or local battles in the home or the church. The fights in our families are often the toughest to deal with, aren't they? It's much easier to pretend everything is okay. It's less stressful that way. I know that's true for me. How about you? Unfortunately, conflict that's not dealt with eventually takes it toll. Families fall apart from neglect as surely as they blow apart by open rebellion. To put it a bit differently, eventually we are forced to wear the yoke of destruction.
Maybe that's the point of what Jesus said. It's a matter of choice. We can choose to wear one yoke, or we can one day be forced to wear another - a yoke that weighs us down so hard we cannot move, a yoke that crushes us. "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest," Jesus says to us. That's not only an invitation to begin the journey, to become his disciples in the first place. It's also a summons for every step along the way.
He doesn't actually say it, but the implication is that we lay our burdens down at his feet. What burdens? Well, you fill in the blank. These are often the things which prevent us from living in peace with God and each other: unresolved hurts, bitterness, unfulfilled dreams or, from a darker perspective, sins we've had committed against us, or sins we've committed against someone else, or God. The route of laying down a burden is confessing it, releasing it into the hands of another, and turning in a new direction.
Again, this sounds easy on paper, but in many cases it can be frightening. I mean, we've never lived in this new territory. How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? We've never been to Babylon before, and yet this place can be the most creative space for us, as God works wonders in us, bringing forth a new creation. I've often found that to be true. The place I most feared became the place where God made all things new. I had to risk my identity, lay aside myself or, to put it a bit differently, allow a part of me to die - that I might rise in newness of life. Do you hear echoes from last week's baptisms?
Lay down your burden, Jesus says, and take up my yoke. Take it up, don't have someone else place it on you. Willingly put it on yourself. There's real freedom in such servanthood. However, don't be mistaken, when Jesus describes his yoke as being easy and light, he's not calling for cost-less discipleship. He isn't saying that we can avoid the conflicts of life, and have smooth sailing across calm waters. He isn't saying that there will be no pain.
What we're missing is that this is his yoke. Think about it. Jesus didn't avoid conflict. He faced it all the way to the cross and beyond. He drank the bitter cup, he didn't let it pass from him, because it was God's will, not his own. He took God's yoke upon himself willingly. In the end, scripture asserts over and over, he chose to die, he didn't have his life taken from him. Nobody laid that yoke, that cross on his shoulders. Because he freely chose this route, this road leads to freedom. He destroyed the power of separation, of sin, of death, because he freely faced into it and walked forward. His yoke is not merely his teachings, his yoke is the way he lived out his teaching - how he walked his talk.
Jesus says, "take up my yoke." If this is still his yoke that we willingly place upon our shoulders, that means that he's still wearing it. We're not wearing it alone! That's why it's easy and light. That's something we never should forget, especially when we're scared of the hard work of peacemaking, whether it be in our homes, in our church, in our workplace, our school, among friends or enemies, or even in some distant place on this globe. It's something I constantly need to be reminding myself, and so do you. Matthew rephrased it and brought his gospel to a close with these words: "I will be with you always, to the end of the age!"
It's my yoke you wear, he says, the yoke of peace. "Take up my yoke, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart." His gentleness and humility is not the avoidance of conflict, but the calm amid the storm. There, as we willingly wear his yoke with him, we find God's rest.
We'll I don't know if you needed to hear this sermon, but I sure did. If you did, too, say Amen.
©1996Peter L. Haynes
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