Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4-6 (NKJV)
Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30 (NKJV)
Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Galatians 6:2 (NKJV)
“Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden...for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” says Jesus in Matthew 11. It is a beguiling invitation, these 3 verses that say so much, so briefly. The words of this text have mesmerized me ever since I heard them, singing Handel’s Messiah for the first time in Chapel Choir, when I was an 18 year old freshman at dear old Duke. No doubt those three verses had been spoken by lay readers or preachers or Sunday School teachers in the church where I grew up, but they never “sank in” until I sang them. As the end of semester approached, with papers due almost daily and exams looming ominously, the lengthy rehearsals and 3 hour performances began to feel a bit like a burden, and I felt heavy laden indeed.
But I could not give up the music; the music was what was getting me through the first seriously demanding academic slog of my life. So I kept on singing in Messiah, every year of undergraduate school and on through Divinity School. Without fail, it cheered me up to sing the words of “Surely” - one of the many settings of the prophet Isaiah‘s words composed by Handel: “Surely! Surely! He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows.” And every time we got to the last phrase of “Yoke,” my spirits lifted, just as the resolution of the final chord raises one of voices a half-tone, so that the word “light” actually sounds...well, not just light, but bright. Singing that last phrase of “Yoke” is a spiritual experience; it brought tears of joy to my eyes. The recitatives and solos of Messiah are memorable to say the least, but even the most professional of soloists will tell you that it is the choruses that “make” Messiah what it is. Once you have learned those runs, chords, and melodic lines, you cannot forget them. When I went to my first Messiah rehearsal after coming to New Bern, I was amazed to discover that, even after a 25 year hiatus, the music of Messiah was still on the inside of me. Handel’s music burns the lyrics into your mind and heart...not a bad thing, since the words of Messiah are the words of the Old and the New Testaments. Memorizing anything is easier if it’s set to music, and this is not just any old music; it is magnificent music, music worthy of the words of Scripture it conveys. Little did I know at 18 that the words of Holy Writ I had memorized singing Messiah would stand me in such good stead throughout pastoral ministry. In the first month of my first appointment, I drove to what was then “Rex Hospital” to visit a critically ill parishioner, arriving in the late evening after a long drive, already dreading to witness the suffering of this lady I’d come to love on scant acquaintance. As I walked through the doors of the entry, I was brought up short by what faced me there- a statue of Jesus, one hand outstretched in welcome; and on the base of the statue, the words I knew so well: “Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest...”. Susan, you idiot, I said to myself, this isn’t about you. No burden you’re carrying comes close to what this woman is shouldering; besides which, aren’t you supposed to be bearing the burdens of others? The words of Jesus were a tonic to me that night; I sang the chorus under my breath as I approached her room. Grace was granted to both of us that night. Nor was that the only occasion when Jesus greeted me at the front door of Rex: since 4 out of 7 appointments were served in and around the Triangle, I spent many an afternoon or evening fortifying myself before a difficult visit, or re-gathering my forces after one, with the compassionate words of Jesus on his statue in the entry. I might even have reached out and taken Jesus’ hand a time or two. I certainly sang “Surely” to myself frequently as I walked through the halls, and more than once I spoke the words of Matthew 11:28-30 to those whom I visited there. Once I quoted them to a young mother whose toddler son was wracked with seizures that nothing seemed to stop (until they put him on a high fat, no carb diet); she was a Lutheran preacher’s kid herself, and joined me in the quoting, word for word. Nor will I ever forget the night I went to Rex to visit the 23 year old son of friends, an amazing young man who was nearing death after an 8 year battle with one kind of cancer after another. His struggle was great and his suffering, profound; it took every ounce of strength God could give me to stand in that room with his family and pray for them. I remember stopping at the Jesus statue on the way out, and addressing him very directly, “I surely am glad that you’re bearing his burden and carrying their sorrow, Lord, because none of us can manage it.”
Thankfully, lightning did not strike; I’m guessing Jesus understood. The receptionists (just inside the entry) got so used to my conversations with the Jesus statue that they quit looking alarmed and began to smile at us instead. Then, a few days ago, listening to a young Presbyterian preacher online, I was reminded of what they taught me in Preacher School: there are two words for “yoke” in New Testament Greek. One indicates a yoke to be borne by a single animal; the other term refers to a double yoke which can only be carried by two. Therein lies the secret of Matthew 11:28-30: the yoke of Jesus isn’t easy because it doesn’t involve heaviness or effort. His burden isn’t light because following him doesn’t ever mean grief or sorrow. (Recall the advance warning Jesus gives to his disciples: If anyone would be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.) Yokes in Jesus’ time were far weightier than modern ultralight materials make today’s versions. The secret is in the design...and in the Designer. The yoke Jesus calls us to wear is “his yoke” because we won’t be wearing it alone; by the time we’re in place, Jesus has gotten there ahead of us, and is already pulling his weight - and more. The burden he calls us to bear is “his” because we won’t be carrying it on our own; he is the One doing the heavy lifting. And when we’re asked to bear one another’s burdens, the One doing the asking has already lightened the load by bearing our own. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Help us to help each other, Lord,
Each other’s cross to bear;
Let each his friendly aid afford,
And feel another’s care.
Up into thee, our living Head,
Let we in all things grow;
And by thy sacrifice be led
The fruits of love to show.
(Charles Wesley, date unknown)
Gracious Lord, thank you for the undeserved honor of being yoked with you. Help us to remember Who is pulling with us and for us. Amen.
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood