An Easy Yoke (Matt 11:16-19, 25-30)

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When I was in primary school, our church used to have an annual picnic. One of the games we would play every year was the three-legged race. If you’ve never been in a three-legged race, the way it works is that you and a partner have your legs tied together, usually at the ankle, and you need to run together towards the end of the course.

It was hard learning how to move together effectively. We are so used to walking at our own pace and in our own ways that we found it difficult to synchronize our movements and find a rhythm so we could run the race. People who were able to find that rhythm did well and finished the race. Those who couldn’t just pulled against each other and ended up on the ground.

When Jesus talked about taking his yoke in Matthew 11:25-30 he was inviting us to learn to walk with him as his disciples. one way we can think of being yoked with Jesus is that it is kind of like running a three-legged race with him. When I was younger, I thought the yoke Jesus was talking about was something we carried individually, the kind that lay across a person’s shoulders with a bucket on each end. Since then I have learned that the yoke Jesus meant was the sort that two oxen would carry to help them walk and work together. Jesus is inviting us to be yoked with him, like we might have our legs tied together in a three-legged race, so that we can learn from Jesus to walk with him in the way of life he walked.

Being yoked with Jesus doesn’t come naturally to us and is difficult for us to learn. We like to walk our own way, going in the directions we choose, and moving at a pace with which we are most comfortable. Especially in our culture which worships our individual right to do what we want, be who we want, and go where we want, the idea of adapting our walk to fit in with others is virtually abhorrent. Our society’s creed of individualism teaches us that we should have the right to choose where, when, and how we walk in our own lives. The problem with this way of thinking is that if we each want to walk our own way, then, like in a three-legged race, we will fall over and probably get hurt.

When Jesus calls us to take up his yoke, he is inviting us to learn a whole new way of living from him that is radically different than our inward-focused, me-first individualism. Jesus’ call to discipleship means learning a way of living that doesn’t burden us with expectations, demands or rules. The religious people of Jesus’ day were really good at doing that. Jesus wants to teach us a different way that leads to rest for our hearts and souls.

A couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus invite us to be his disciples and learn a different way of living from him that involved taking up our cross in faith and love. In Matthew 11:28-30 he uses the image of taking up his yoke with him. This might seem like a burden, but the beauty of Jesus’ words is that he says that his ‘yoke is easy to bear’ and the burden he gives us is light (v30). This might seem like a contradiction, but Jesus is saying that he wants us to learn from him a way of life that is free from expectations and guilt, and full of his grace.

Eugene Petersen describes the new way of living that Jesus invites us to learn as ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ (Matthew 11:29 MSG). As Jesus offers us his yoke, or as he ties his leg to ours for our three-legged race together, he is asking us to learn from him how to live with grace as our foundational reality. This grace isn’t something that we struggle or try harder to do, but in the same way that we can find a rhythm with our partner in a three-legged race, Jesus wants us to walk with him so we can find his rhythm of grace and it can flow naturally, in an unforced way, through our whole lives.

This grace works in two ways. Firstly, it is living in God’s grace for us in Jesus. There are lots of ways we can understand this grace: forgiveness, new life, redemption, salvation, and a home in the kingdom of heaven. We can also think of God’s grace as the way he gift us with a new identity as his children whom he loves, a place to belong in the body of Christ and the community of believers, and a new purpose in living for him and being part of God’s mission in the world. In fact, we can understand God’s grace as every good thing he gives us for life in this world and the next. God gifts us with everything we need because of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for us which renews our relationship with our Father in heaven and gives us his favour. We can spend our whole lives learning more and more about God’s grace in which we live as we take up Jesus’ yoke and walk with him.

The second way we ‘learn the unforced rhythm of grace’ in our lives is in our relationships with other people. Grace isn’t just something God gives to us. It is also something we give to others. Again, we can think of this grace in many different ways, such as forgiving people who have wronged us, or accepting, loving, welcoming, and building up one another. This grace that we extend to others is having an outward focus on others in the faith that God will provide us with everything we need for Jesus’s sake. The ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ are identical to the way of faith and love that we talked about a couple of weeks ago, which lies at the heart of the New Testament letters to early Christian communities. It is grace which flows from God, through us, and into the lives of everyone we meet.

As I said earlier, this rhythm of grace doesn’t come naturally to us and often isn’t easy for us. We need to be life-long learners, disciples of Jesus who are learning from him what this grace looks like and how it works in all the varied circumstances and different situations of life. Carrying Jesus’ yoke, or being Jesus’ three-legged race partner, isn’t just a one-off decision. It means walking closely with him every day of our lives, listening to his word, watching the way he trusted our Father and treated people, so that we can live in the reality of his grace and we can live out his grace in relationship and community with others.

Which way are we walking in our lives? Are we being discipled by our individualistic culture, which tells us to walk where we want, how we want, when we want? If we are, how is that working out for us? Are we walking well, or are we stumbling or falling along the way? Are we ready to learn a new way of living, walking closely with Jesus and learning a new way of living from him as his disciples? Are we willing to pick up his yoke? Will we trust him enough to tie our leg to his and learn how to walk in his way, and not our own? Are we ready to learn the unforced rhythm of grace from Jesus?

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you even been in a three-legged race? How did you find it – was it easy or hard for you? Why was that?
  • What makes it difficult to walk with someone in a three-legged race? What can help us walk together?
  • How might taking up Jesus’ yoke be like partnering with him in a three-legged race? Do you think the analogy works? Explain why/why not…
  • What do you think it might mean to take up Jesus’ yoke? How can we find rest in it? In what ways can it be ‘easy’ and ‘light’?
  • What do you think of Eugene Petersen’s description of taking up Jesus’ yoke as ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’? What do you think that looks like?
  • Would you say that you are ‘learning the unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus? Or are you walking in your own way at your own pace? Give reasons for your answers…
  • What might your life be like if you were learning the ‘unforced rhythms of grace’ from Jesus by taking up his yoke as his student? How might your life be the same? How might it be different?
  • If Jesus is asking each of us to take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him, then we can think of our congregation as a Christ-centred community of faith where we are all learning this new way of life in our relationships with each other. What is your reaction to thinking about ‘church’ in this way?
  • What will you do this week to walk with Jesus, take up his yoke and learn ‘the unforced rhythms of grace’ from him?

You can find a video version of this message at https://youtu.be/JNDH_rD9qQE

God bless!

Taking Up Our Cross (Matthew 10:24-39)

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In a lot of workplaces, employees need to complete manual handling training. These courses basically teach people how to lift things safely. When I worked as a supermarket casual during my student years, I first thought that doing a course to learn how to lift things was a waste of time. I had been lifting things my while life, so why did I need training in it? However, then I started meeting people with serious back problems because they didn’t lift properly. My mind was changed – maybe we need to learn how to lift so we don’t injure ourselves and we can enjoy the life we have been given.

Have you ever thought about Jesus as a manual handling trainer? Towards the end of Matthew 10:24-39, the Gospel Reading for this week, Jesus calls us to do some heavy lifting in our lives. He says, ‘If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine’ (v38 NLT). Here, as in other places in the gospel, Jesus calls people to follow him as his disciples by taking up our cross (see also Matthew 16:24, Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23).

People interpret what it means it take up a cross in different ways. In the most literal sense, however, Jesus took up his cross when he suffered and died for us. Jesus knew that the only way that we could live as God’s children in this world and the next was for him to literally pick up a heavy wooden cross and carry it to Calvary where he would suffer and die. He walked this path trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and the promises he received through the Scriptures. Jesus walked this path in love for us, knowing that his death would mean life for us as it gives us forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and new life. Jesus lifted the heavy weight of the cross and walked the path of suffering and death in faith and love.

Jesus wants us to learn to live like this as well. He calls us to take up our cross and follow him on the path of faith and love. The word used in Matthew 10: 24 as ‘student’ in both the NIV and NLT is translated in other passages of the New Testament as ‘disciple’. Disciples are students who are learning a new way of living from their teacher. Jesus calls us to follow him as his students. He wants to teach us a new way of living by learning from the way he lived his life. This new way of life involves picking up our crosses and following Jesus in the path of faith and love.

This is where the illustration of Jesus as a manual handling trainer might help us understand more about being his disciples or students. Following Jesus is not an easy road to walk. In this reading from Matthew 10:24-39 Jesus is warning us that there will be a cost in following him. Jesus did not pick up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives convenient, safe, easy, or comfortable. Instead, he calls us to follow him so we can find what life is all about and then share the life Jesus gives us with others.

The life of faith and love to which Jesus calls us and that he models for us is not an easy one. It is a complete reorientation of our lives away from ourselves towards God and other people. When Jesus took up his cross to suffer and die, he was trusting in the love of his Father in heaven and extending that love to us. Jesus’ life was oriented away from himself towards God and us. The way of faith and love which Jesus teaches us follows the same orientation. It turns our focus away from ourselves towards him and others. It is a life lived in faith as we trust God to give us everything we need for life in this world and the next because of what Jesus did for us. This faith frees us from having to worry about ourselves so we can focus on the people around us and how we can serve them, just like Jesus serves us.

This kind of life involves some heavy lifting. It will cost us, in the same way it cost Jesus, as we prioritize others by serving, blessing and extending grace to them, just as Jesus serves, blesses and shows infinite, perfect grace to us. Jesus wants us to live this life in a way that is healthy and good for us, so he teaches us how to do it in a life-giving way. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants to teach us how to lift our crosses in ways that won’t hurt or injure us but will give us life so we can pass his life on to others. Like a manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn how to lift our crosses well so we can continue to live for him and for others in faith and love.

It is really important for us to hear this at this time. For a while now people have been telling me how much they are enjoying worshiping at home because we can do it when we like, how they we, and with people we like. Worship at home is safe, comfortable, convenient, and easy. I understand why we have needed to worship at home over the last few months, however, this is not the life to which Jesus calls us. Jesus’ teaching to love others in the way that he loves us (John 13:34,35 etc) only makes sense when it is practised in community with people who are different to us. It’s easy to love people who we like and who agree with us. It is much harder to love people who have different opinions, who look different, who behave different, who have different worship preferences, or who think in different ways to us. To love in the way that Jesus teaches means loving people who we find hard to love, just like Jesus loves me.

Jesus calls us to follow him as his student disciples so we can learn his new way of loving and living from him. This way of life doesn’t come naturally to us, so we need Jesus to teach us how to lift our crosses, how to trust the love of our Father in heaven, and how to love other people in the same way he does. This will cost us, and in a world that teaches us that my life should be oriented around me and what I want, it will bring us into conflict with the world and culture in which we live. However, Jesus promises us in Matthew 10:39 that when we learn this way of living from him, and when we re-orient our lives by trusting Jesus and loving other people, we will find greater meaning in a life which is stronger than death.

There was a time when manual handling training didn’t make sense to me. Then I learned how important it is to lift correctly so we can stay fit and enjoy the life that God has given us. As our manual handling trainer, Jesus wants us to learn from him how to lift our cross in faith and love so we can enter into the life God has for us. Jesus didn’t take up his cross to suffer and die to make our lives safe, convenient, or comfortable. When we follow him, our lives won’t be either. However, when we trust Jesus and follow in his way of faith and love, not only do we find the life to the full that he promises (John 10:10), we can also pass his life on to others.

More to think about & discuss:

  • Have you or someone you know ever done any manual handling training or been taught how to lift things safely? What did you or they think of it? How has it helped you or them?
  • How have you understood Jesus’ teaching to take up our cross in the past? What has it meant to you?
  • Have you ever considered yourself a student of Jesus? What do you think being Jesus’ student might mean?
  • What is your reaction to the idea of Jesus wanting us to learn from him how to take up our cross and live in faith and love? What do you like about it? What is hard to understand about it?
  • Does this way of life sound easy or difficult to you? Explain why you think that way…
  • How might your life look different if you re-oriented it around faith in Jesus and love for other people? How might Jesus be able to help you learn how to do that in ways that are healthy and life-giving?
  • What are some practical ways that can you take this teaching of Jesus seriously in the coming week?

If you would like to watch a video form of this message, you can find it at https://youtu.be/MhGfjV2abvI

God bless!

Learning to Pray (1 Timothy 2:1-7)

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Good communication is vital for any healthy relationship. If our connections with each other are going to be constructive and life-giving, we need to be communicating well. This means both talking and listening to each other.

Our relationship with God works the same way. If we are going to live as God’s children and find life in our relationship with him, we need to be communicating with him. This happens in two ways: by listening to what God says to us in the words of the Bible and by talking with him in prayer. That is why these are the two most basic spiritual disciplines for disciples of Jesus: learning to listen to what he says to us through his Word and talking with him in prayer.

Unfortunately, we haven’t always learned healthy ways of talking with God in the church. For example, as a young person growing up in the church, the main ways of praying I witnessed were formal, pre-prepared pieces of writing which were read by the pastor in church or by our Dad at home. I understand that there is a time and place for a more formal way of praying, but when Jesus talks about God as our loving heavenly Dad, there is also room for us to talk with God like our Dad in heaven who just wants to listen to what’s going on in our lives.

When the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the young Pastor Timothy, he urged him to make prayer his first priority. That’s why he says, ‘I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people’ (v1 NLT). Prayer might be the first of a number of concerns that Paul is addressing in his letter to Timothy, kind of like the first thing on a list of things to talk about. However, these words can also mean that praying for all people is to be at the top of Timothy’s pastoral to-do list. It would be like Paul writing, ‘I urge you, most importantly of all, to pray for all people.’ This interpretation would show that Paul also regarded prayer as one of the most important things that Jesus’ followers can do. As we ask God to help us and other people, as we intercede for others, speaking to God on their behalf, and as we give thanks for all the expressions of God’s grace in our lives, we will grow in our relationship with God and bring his blessings to the people we pray for, our nation and its leaders, and the world in which we live.

One of the most important ways that we learn anything is by watching others do it. As we see other people modelling behaviours, actions and practices, we learn by watching them and how they do them. In particular, young people learn more from what we do than from what we say. If our actions are not consistent with our words, then they will learn more from what we do than the words we use.

When it comes to prayer, then, young people in particular, but also other Christians, will be learning about the importance of prayer in our lives and how to pray from the ways in which we pray. This is one of the reasons why it is important for us to be praying together as members of God’s family. Prayer is not just an individual thing. If we take that kind of approach to prayer, then other people might miss out on an important part of our relationships with our heavenly Father and each other. However, when we are praying together, we will be more like a family getting together to talk with their Dad in heaven. When we pray together in our homes, in small groups, and in our corporate worship, we will be teaching two really important things to the young in age and the young in faith. Firstly, we will be modelling that talking with our Dad in heaven is an important part of our relationship with him. Secondly, we will also be modelling good, healthy, life-giving ways to pray in which we are praying for all people, asking for God’s help, interceding for others and thanking him for all the good things he gives to us every day of our lives (1 Timothy 2:1).

Talking with God isn’t about getting the words right. I hope my children will see that just talking with me is more important than using the right words, and I believe God thinks the same when it comes to the ways we talk with him. Our first priority, then, as God’s children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased, and as followers in the way of Jesus, is to pray. God wants to be hearing what’s going on in our lives and in the lives of others. God wants us to trust him with everything that’s happening in our lives and in the lives of others. If you don’t know how to do that, or if you’re not comfortable in doing that, part of our church’s Discipling Plan is to help us grow as praying people.

Who can you be praying for this week? Try praying for a different person each day. Ask God to help them with what’s going on in their lives. Intercede for them by speaking up for them before God. Thank God for them being in your life and for the good God is giving to them and to you through them. We’ve actually stuck the four parts of 1 Timothy 2:1 – Pray for all people, Ask God to help, Intercede and Thank God – on our fridge to remind us. Maybe you could do something similar to help you develop the spiritual discipline of prayer.

However you do it, just talk with God, because it’s a vital part of our relationship with him and God loves it when his kids take the time to talk with him.

Learning to Fish for People (Mark 1:14-20)

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I never learned how to fish.

Some might by surprised or horrified by my confession because often people think that fishing is an essential pastime for a pastor. I have some friends who love fishing and constantly tell me how much they enjoy fishing and all the fish they catch. So when – or if – the time comes when I want to learn how to fish, what will be the best way?

I could buy a book & read all about it, or watch YouTube clips, or maybe even try to work it out on my own. When I put this question to my congregation on Sunday, just about everyone agreed that the best way to learn how to fish is to go fishing with someone who knows what they’re going.

Generally speaking, that’s how we learn: by watching others and following their example.

When Jesus called Simon, Andrew, James and John to follow him as his disciples, he called them to learn from him a new way of living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom (v15). Jesus taught that God’s Kingdom wasn’t a long way off, either in distance or in time. Instead, Jesus said that it is near. This Kingdom is God’s power, breaking through into our world by the power of God’s Holy Spirit, righting the wrongs of a fallen creation and restoring things to the way God intended from the beginning. Because God does all this in the person of Jesus, God’s Kingdom is wherever Jesus is, as he restores, redeems and renews all things by the power of the Holy Spirit.

The disciples who followed Jesus learned what living in God’s Kingdom is like. They learned it by being with Jesus, hearing his parables, seeing his miracles and witnessing his disputes with the religious leaders of his time. Most of all, though, they learned about the Kingdom of God in their own relationship with Jesus. Jesus’ followers encountered the reality of God’s coming Kingdom through the perfect and infinite love and grace Jesus displayed through his death on the cross. They also encountered the power of God’s coming Kingdom in Jesus’ resurrection. That’s where they saw that God’s love for us in Jesus is stronger than anything we encounter in this world, even death.

We can understand discipleship, then, as Jesus calling us to learn to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom of grace and love everyday of our lives. In all the situations we face in life, both good and bad, when Jesus call us to follow him, he wants us to learn from him how the grace and love he extends to us through his death and resurrection can shape us, our relationships with each other, and our community of faith. Learning to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom means encountering Jesus’ perfect and infinite love for us each and every day of our lives, and learning the difference it makes. We don’t learn this from a book or YouTube clip. We learn about the transforming power of God’s coming Kingdom by walking side by side with Christian sisters and brothers around us, just like Peter, Andrew, James, John and the other disciples learned it by walking with Jesus to the cross and empty grave.

This is largely what our congregation’s Discipling Plan is about. Last year, as we were discussing our plan for the future of our church, we spent a lot of time learning about discipleship by reading the gospels to see how Jesus discipled others. In the same way that Jesus connected with these four fishermen on the banks of Sea of Galilee, we hope that people will connect with Jesus and with each other as we learn together what it means to live in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom.

It is significant to see that when Jesus called these disciples, he already had their destination in mind. Jesus wanted them to learn about the reality of God’s coming Kingdom so they could then teach others. That’s why Jesus said that he was going to show them ‘how to fish for people’ (v17 NLT). In the same way, our Discipling Plan begins with our destination in mind as we aim to send people out to ‘fish for people’ in our lives, too. To achieve this, we are planning to grow in our faith, just as Peter and the other disciples learned to trust Jesus, and to be equipped for the work Jesus is calling us to do, just like someone who goes fishing needs the right equipment. We find everything we need to fulfil Jesus’ calling when we follow him and learn from him to live in the day-to-day reality of God’s coming Kingdom.

This becomes especially important when we are talking about our ministry to young people in our congregation. Whether we like it or not, our children, grandchildren and others who are new to the Christian faith are learning from us – our words, our actions and our relationships – what the Kingdom of God is like. We need to be asking ourselves what they are learning from us? Are our young people learning that the Kingdom of God is about turning up to church? Or are they learning that God’s Kingdom is about going on a roster or a committee? Worshipping together and being organized are important elements of Christian community, but they aren’t the main thing in God’s coming Kingdom. What we learn from Jesus as we follow him to the cross and empty grave is that his grace and love for us is better and stronger than anything else in this world. My hope and prayer for our young people is that they will learn from us that living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom each and every day brings hope and joy and peace, and that they will also learn for themselves how to fish for others.

The best way to learn to fish is to find someone who knows how to fish, and then go fishing with them. Are we willing to learn a new way of living in the reality of God’s coming Kingdom of grace and love from Jesus? As we learn from him, then others – and our young people especially – will learn about living in God’s coming Kingdom from us, as Jesus teaches us to fish for people together.