We received in the mail this invitation. It is wrapped with what Kay says is raffia. It has a pretty little shell piece attached to it. It is printed beautifully inside. It is an invitation to my niece's wedding this summer in Florida. It is a very, very nice invitation.
But what Russell read in our hearing before he led our prayer is not merely a nice invitation. It is what has been called "The Great Invitation." Our Lord said, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest." Here is an invitation which is universal in scope. It is for anyone who realizes that he needs the Lord's care. And it is An invitation for what we need most - rest for our souls.
J.W. McGarvey said of this text, "The tenderness and beauty of this invitation are the admiration of the world." I expect that is true. I think this is one of the most beloved passages in all of the Bible. That means that we need to study it more closely. Consider some of the details of "the great invitation."
Let's start by considering together the circumstance which is envisioned in this passage. The circumstance is that there will be people who labor and are heavy laden. The terms used here do not merely describe someone who is a little bit tired physically. They describe instead someone who is laboring under a load to the point that he or she is exhausted, someone who cannot keep on, someone who cannot bear up under his burden.
Now what could cause an individual to labor and to be heavy laden like this - to be weary and exhausted? One possibility is, of course, that someone may simply be worn down by the responsibilities and obligations of life. More and more we are understanding some of the terrible toll that constant stress can take on individuals in the physical sense. We know that too heavy demands can bring their price from relationships, from personalities, and other ways. We ought to also be aware that the highest toll that constant pressure takes on us may be on our spirits - where we grow consumed with ourselves; where we are unable to see any course or any direction for our lives; where we become a little bit bitter and feeling sorry for ourselves because of what all we have to do. Sometimes we end up in places where we cannot talk about anything but ourselves and what we have to do and what kind of burdens are on us. In that situation, where does a person turn? That is one of the circumstances Jesus has in mind.
Another possibility is anxiety over the purpose and meaning of life. We all are going to get to that age, if we are not there yet, where we start wondering what we really have accomplished in our lives and what we are going to accomplish. That may not bother you very much right now. You may be young enough to think that you can just get by with being flippant and having a good time. But I assure you, sooner or later you will start wondering what matters, what really makes a difference. It may be as you suffer some loss or another when you begin to confront the fact that you are a mortal and we are not here forever. But sometime or another you, like the rich young ruler, are going to be burdened with the question of what you need to do to inherit life. You are going to see that something is lacking in the approach you have been taking. When that time comes, to whom will you go for an answer?
A third possibility is that the circumstance here might involve being burdened by grief and by hurts and by loss in life. We have even been touched as a congregation over the last few days by losses that people we love have suffered, losses of people we have loved. We are concerned right now about others who are facing afflictions or illnesses brought on either by being just in this physical body or by age. Those things weigh heavy on our hearts and minds. They make us weary. But we don't face them as people who have no hope, do we?
Another possibility is that the kind of burden that is envisioned here has to do with the thought of religion. It is the case, in this same book of Matthew (Matt. 23:4), that the Pharisees and the Scribes were laying heavy burdens on people that neither the fathers nor they themselves had been able to bear. The whole thought of relationship of God had become one of burdens and that is all -- what you had to do and what you had not to do -- and very little with who it is that you are supposed to be doing it for. How do you think of your spiritual life this morning? Is it a burden or a blessing? Did you get up early on the Lord's Day morning and come out in the rain because you had to or because it is a privilege to remember what Jesus did for us and to think about what he still has promised to do for us? The weariness here may be related to the thought of a burdensome religion which doesn't focus on who the Lord is and what we are privileged to do for him.
There is a fifth possibility, and most likely this one is going to be closest to what Jesus is talking about here, though all the others are included. It is that an individual may be burdened by a sense of guilt and failure. The Old Testament spoke of a time under the first covenant when people, if they departed from God, were going to have an iron yoke placed upon them. It would be the yoke of their enemies, according to Deut. 28:18. It was a situation where Lamentations 1:14 would say "one's own transgressions" would become a heavy yoke for him. He would wonder where there would be relief from his own guilt and from his own disastrous choices and his own failures in life. The prodigal, when he was off in the far country, found himself in the hog pen which resulted from his own foolish choices. Guilt leads to a situation where a person understands that he stands condemned - condemned by his own conscience, condemned by other people, and worst of all condemned by God. Someone has suggested that the ABCs of sin are alienation, bondage, and condemnation. And since Jesus spoke in this passage of rest for our souls, and since he spoke it at the end of the context when he had sent the seventy out to preach the gospel of the kingdom, since he spoke it after he has pronounced woe upon those cities which rejected that good news and would not receive the thought or would not repent, I believe that the Lord is more than anything talking about rest from guilt and alienation, bondage and condemnation. And if he is, what a thought it is that there would be some answer to that kind of a burden and that kind of weariness!
But there is a second theme in this passage which is crucial. I want you to contemplate for a moment the kind of claim that Jesus makes in issuing this invitation. How in the world can a man say "I am meek and lowly in heart" and then say "Come to me and I will give you rest?" What if an ordinary man stood up and issued that kind of an invitation? Wouldn't you think he was some kind of a maniac or that he was arrogant to assume that anybody anywhere would come to him and he could give them rest?
One of my favorite movies is the baseball fantasy movie "Field of Dreams." There is a scene in it where the main character goes to some town in Minnesota to look up a fellow who, when he played, got in one game for one inning many years earlier. His nickname was "Moonlight Graham." They went to the town and they looked him up. They found out that actually the fellow had become the town doctor. There is a scene in which the main character gets to visit with the old man and asked, "Doc Graham, if you just could have one dream that could be granted to you, what would it be?" And the guy talks about how he wishes he could stand and face the pitcher, with the warm sunshine on him and the green grass and the blue sky and the roar of the crowd, and he could stare at that pitcher and wink at him and the pitcher would throw his best stuff. He would take it off the outside corner and line it into the gap in the opposite field and circle the bases at the top of his speed and dive lunging, with dirt in his hands, into third base and be called safe. And then he looks at the main character and says, "And you, Ray Kinsella, are the kind of man who could give me that wish?" Is Jesus the kind of one who can grant us this blessing? Who does he think he is? What would give him, of all people, the right to say "Come to me and I will give you rest?"
Look at the basis of this claim in this passage. First, Jesus raised his eyes to the Father in heaven, addressed him as "Father, Lord of heaven and earth." That is a significant address if you will think about it. And then he thanks God for what he has made known to the babes, to those who would humbly receive what they were taught. And then Jesus claims in verse 27, "all things have been handed over to me by my Father." Look at the relationship to the God of heaven that Jesus is claiming here. He is saying that he is the Son of God and that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, and that he has the right to invite whom he will and to promise them what he will because of his oneness with the Father. Jesus is claiming here to have the power and the ability to do what he is saying.
Secondly, Jesus claims at the end of verse 27, "No one knows the Son except the Father. No one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." What Jesus is claiming there is that nobody is going to come to a knowledge of God in any other way besides through him. Jesus is emphasizing that revelation by inspiration is essential. Living in a world where we have become accustomed to each person designing his own god and each one of us just sort of declaring for ourselves what God's will for our lives really is, we need to wake up and hear what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying "there is no knowledge of God and what God wants apart from me." Think of how startling such a claim is to this present world which so values a sort of pluralism in which every belief and every claim is supposed to be equally valid. Can you hear what Jesus is saying? In John 14 he said it in a little bit different way, but it is the very same point. "I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me."
He claims every authority. He claims the only revelation that really matters, and then he turns around and says, "I am meek and lowly in heart," verse 29. How do you fit those things together? One of the internal evidences of the inspiration of scripture is just this very thing. He can't be humble and lowly if he turns around and makes outrageous claims that couldn't possibly be true. A humble and lowly man can't claim all authority and that only he can reveal God unless it is true.
What Jesus is claiming here is that he is the Messiah and his words "lowly" and "meek" have a background in the great messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. In Isaiah 53, for example, the passage that talks about Jesus' suffering, there is the statement that shows the lowliness that Jesus was willing to assume. It says, "For he grew up before him like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground. He had no form or majesty that we should look at him and no beauty that we should desire him." That is the lowliness of Jesus' heart. In Isaiah 42, the meekness or the gentleness of the Messiah, was predicted. This passage says, "He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice or make it heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break and a faintly burning wick he will not quench. He will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not faint or grow weary until he has established justice in the earth and the coast lands wait for his law." He is meek and gentle. He is meek and lowly in heart just like the prophets promised he would be. If you put that together, he is able, he knows, and he cares. And that is the reason he is able to make the kind of invitation that he makes here in this text.
But now, when it comes to finding rest, there are some conditions that Jesus attached. Having thought about the circumstances and having considered the claim, we need to briefly be aware of the condition that Jesus established. He said, "Come to me." Notice that he doesn't say "come to rest. Come to get rest." He says "come to me. I will give it." The kind of rest for our souls that we are looking for is not going to be found by being so concerned about ourselves and our own troubles and our own problems that that is all we can think about, and we come to the Lord demanding an answer to them. The kind of rest that he is talking about has to do with our being so impressed with him that we come to him and then he deals with the need for rest in our lives.
But Jesus not only said "I will give you rest." He also said, "You will find rest." Rest comes to us while we are doing some things. First he says "Take my yoke upon you." That is a way of saying that we find rest when we submit ourselves to the Lord's direction and the Lord's rule and the Lord's guidance. The kind of rest that he is talking about here is not just simply absence from responsibility or absence from obligation. Tasker, in his commentary, says that the word for rest might be translated "relief." And he said, "Certainly Jesus does not promise his disciples a life of inactivity or repose nor freedom from sorrow and struggle, but he does assure them that if they will keep close to him, they will find relief from the crushing burdens of life." That is a good statement. Taking a yoke upon you meant that you were getting ready to go to work. My grandpa would put the old collars on his team of old horses when he was getting ready to break up the garden spot with his old plow. You take the yoke, meaning that you are now ready to do what Jesus says, to be under his control, to have his will be the guide and the principle of your life. So the thought is that Jesus is saying, "Come and obey me. Come and let me handle the reigns. Repent and submit yourself to my rule in your life."
Second, the Lord says, "learn from me." We find the rest we are looking for when we are learning hot to live from Jesus. We listen to his teaching and we watch his example. We find rest for our souls as we imitate the love he has for the Father, the purity he maintained in the face of temptation, and the servant's heart he displayed in the way he treated people. Rest comes as we "learn Jesus," as we become like him.
Did you know that this invitation could literally be translated "Come unto me and I will rest you." I saw a basketball game last night when Coach Eddie Sutton was coaching the Oklahoma State Cowboys. It as about halfway through the last half, and the game was close. The announcers were saying, "Coach Sutton has got to put his starters back in." But you know what he was doing? He was resting his starters. Now I am not saying he is like the Lord, but for that team he is. What he says goes. He rested those guys, and then he put them back in, and they won the game. Jesus is saying, "You come to me and I will rest you. I will get you ready to live life bearing the burdens, meeting your obligations, bearing fruit, and doing some good." That is a great invitation!! That is what this passage is all about.
Then a third thing that stands out in this passage is the idea that we find the rest that we are looking for when we are bearing the burden that is laid upon us by the Lord. He said "you will find rest for your soul for my yoke is easy and my burden is light." What that means is that what he requires of us fits perfectly and it allows us to carry the burdens. Maybe some of you have gone backpacking before. A backpacker has a little frame that fits his shoulder and the contour of his back perfectly. And on that little frame he will lay his sleeping bag, his cooking utensils, his food, water, extra clothing, and whatever it is he is taking. He can carry all that burden without it seeming heavy because the yoke fits. Consider another illustration -- a pair of shoes. Have any of you every tried to run or to play basketball with shoes that don't fit? They rub a blister on your foot and it just doesn't work. If you have what fits, then you are not ready to put your feet up on the ottoman and lay back and relax. You are ready to bear the burden that is there without it seeming too heavy and too cumbersome.
One of the ideas that has to be here is the thought that when people truly repent and when people commit themselves to the Lord's rule in their lives, and when they go out to do what he says because they love him and they want to, then his commandments are not burdensome, not grievous. (I John 5:3). Jesus put it another way in John 15:14 and that is "If we love him, we will keep his commandments." We will do what he wants.
We find the rest we are looking for when we keep on with the Lord - not getting frustrated and not deciding that we are going to go off and do it better without the Lord's guidance and without his help. But when we go on under his yoke, bearing our burdens, in that process we find, surprisingly, the rest that we are looking for all along.
When Jesus said, "Come unto me," he was laying before us the first and most basic need and obligation of all of our lives, and that is deciding to whom it is that we will go to have the rule in our lives. It may be you, yourself. It may be some other person. But it ought to be Jesus. If you are ready this morning to take his yoke upon you and to learn of him how to live, we urge you to act on that intention. If you need to obey the gospel, do it today. If you need to come home to the Lord, do it today. If we can help you, let it be known while we stand and sing.