Click HERE for an audio podcast of this message.
Most people know what a yoke is, not an egg yolk, but a yoke for oxen, or mules, or horses. You may have never seen one in use, but you have probably seen one in a museum, or in a picture depicting the pioneers with oxen pulling their covered wagon, or maybe plowing the soil. It’s basically a piece of wood with two loops, one for each animal. When looking for animals to yoke together to pull a wagon or to pull a plow you would look for two animals that were matched, who would work together and pull with almost equal force.
The Bible makes it clear that every human is yoked with someone, either Satan and the law, or Jesus and the gospel. There is no other possibility. And either way, whether we are yoked to Satan or to Jesus, we are unequally yoked.
The Bible teaches us that by nature, as we are born into this world, we are yoked to Satan. We are born dead in sin. We are born enemies of God with no power to free ourselves from being yoked with Satan who is headed to eternal destruction and taking us with him. It is to all who are yoked with Satan that Jesus calls, come to me all you who are weary and burdened.
But Satan doesn’t want us to hear Jesus’ invitation. He tries to convince us that we really aren’t burdened, or under a yoke. He tries to convince us that we are free. He tells us that if we listen to Jesus, we will no longer be free. We will be burdened by all kinds of rules. We won’t be able to live our lives the way we want. It’s the same trick he used with Eve when he implied, “as long as there is one tree in the garden from which you are forbidden to eat you aren’t really free. Be your own master. Eat and be free.” Satan wants us to see God as an evil taskmaster who enjoys burdening us with rules so that we don’t notice that listening to him tightens his yoke around our necks even more; so that we don’t realize that he is really the one who is the evil, lying taskmaster who is seeking to take us with him to eternal destruction.
Those who are yoked together with Satan are wearied and burdened because being yoked together with him is like yoking an ox with a Shetland pony. Satan is the pony. He makes us do all the work, and when we cry out that we can’t, that we are exhausted, he heaps guilt and insults on us and makes us feel even more exhausted and worthless.
His greatest tool for doing this is God’s law. That might sound strange, but the devil uses God’s law against us. He loves to hold God’s law before us and say, “if you want to be free of my yoke, this is what you have to do.” You see, he knows very well that we will fail. He knows very well that we are unable to keep God’s law. He knows very well that if we try to free ourselves from his yoke by keeping God’s law, we will become wearied and burdened. We will realize that we can never do enough, that we always fall short. In this way he makes us more and more wearied and burdened and yoked even more tightly with him.
Jesus pointed out how the Pharisees and teachers of the law, the Jewish legalists, were doing Satan’s bidding. He told his disciples not to be like them because they tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. There is no better example of this than what they did to Judas. When he was burdened by guilt for betraying Jesus, instead of lifting a finger to remove his guilt they burdened him with even more guilt by telling him it was his responsibility. He had to make up for is own sin.
The legalists of our day do the same. They tell their followers that the reason things aren’t going better in their lives is that they don’t have a strong enough faith. If their faith were stronger God would bless them and their illness would be healed, or their money problems would disappear, or their marriage would be healed. But when none of those things happen no matter how hard they try to have a stronger faith and follow God’s commands they become burdened with guilt like Judas. These legalist teachers don’t lift a finger to remove the burden because they continue to point people to themselves and to God’s law.
We too can be guilty of making others feel wearied and burdened when we imply that those who are caught in a sin just need to try harder to overcome the sin. We can be guilty of making others feel wearied and burdened when we dismiss them, look down on them, or point them to themselves, or to the law instead of giving them what they really need – the invitation of Jesus: come to me you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest, rest for your souls.
Jesus says to all of us who are wearied by trying to do everything the law demands and failing miserably over and over and over again; Jesus says to all of us who are burdened by the guilt of our sin and weighed down by the yoke of Satan who doesn’t do anything to help us but continues to blame and insult us for not doing more or better; Jesus says to all of us who are wearied and burdened, come to me. Take my yoke upon you. My yoke is easy and my burden is light.
How can that be? How can being yoked with Jesus make our burden light?
By being yoked with Jesus we learn the truth about him. We learn who God is and what he has done for us, and the truth sets us free.
As we are yoked with Jesus, we see him face all the temptations we face, but unlike us, he never gives in to temptation, and because we are yoked with him, God credits us with resisting temptation too.
As we are yoked with Jesus, we see him doing what we fail to do. We see him keeping every one of God’s laws perfectly. And because we are yoked with him, God credits his perfection to us.
As we are yoked with Jesus, we see him betrayed and beaten, condemned and crucified. We are there with him on the cross and we see the burden of our guilt, and the guilt of every sin, placed on him. And because we are yoked with him, God considers that our sins have been paid for in full.
Paul reminds us that, through baptism, we have been united with, yoked together with Jesus, so that we were buried with him, and have risen with him. God considers that what Jesus did and what Jesus suffered we did and suffered. His righteousness is our righteousness. His payment for sin is our payment for sin.
Do you see why his yoke is easy and his burden is light? We are just along for the ride. He is the Ox in the yoke, and we are the pony. Our feet don’t even touch the ground. He does all the work.
Because Jesus lived and died for us, we have rest. We have rest from the burden of trying to earn our way to heaven which is an exercise in futility because we can’t keep God’s law perfectly no matter how hard we try.
We have rest from our guilt. When we, like Judas are overwhelmed with guilt, realizing we deserve God’s eternal punishment for our sins, by God’s grace we have someone who points us to Jesus. By God’s grace we have parents, and pastors, and teachers, and fellow believers, who do not say, ‘tough luck, your sin is your own responsibility.” No, by God’s grace we have parents, and pastors, and teachers, and fellow believers who point us to Jesus and remind us that he makes our burden light by taking the burden of our sins on himself. By God’s grace they point out that, contrary to what the devil and the world tell us, being yoked to Jesus isn’t burdensome. In fact, just the opposite. When you are yoked to Jesus you get the benefit of everything he has done, and you get to go with him safely through the valley of the shadow of death to dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Are you weary and burdened? Jesus invites you, come to me. His words give you the power to come. And he gives you rest. Rest from guilt. Rest from the fear of death. Rest from the accusations and insults of Satan.
As we continue to learn from him, as we review again during the Lenten season how he is our Good Shepherd who laid down his life for us and took it up again, we see how gentle and humble he is. We experience that his yoke is easy, and his burden is light, and we receive rest for our souls.
In joyful appreciation for Jesus’ gracious invitation and all he has done for us, we join Paul Gerhardt in saying: Lord, all my life I’ll cling to you, your love fore’er beholding. You ever, as you ever, me, with loving arms enfolding. Yes, You shall be my precious light to guide me safe through death’s dark night, my heart in sorrow cheering; henceforth my self and all I have, to you, my Savior e’er I’ll give, into your cause all pouring. I am happy to be yoked to you, Jesus, now and forever.