Finding Rest in a Stressful World

Scriptures: Romans 7:15-25a; Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Before I get into the exploration of Matthew, I do want to say thank you to our liturgist this morning. That passage from Romans is one of the more difficult passages to do. That’s the infamous tongue-twister there, that I happen to enjoy.

It also is a passage that continually gives me hope. As with Peter, Paul himself, this great saint of the Lord, explains the struggle that he has and the times that he fails, and yet God is still good.

Do you sometimes feel that life happens too fast and you are always in a hurry? Do you feel overwhelmed with the demands and pressures of life? Do you feel exhausted? Have you lost your sense of excitement about living every day?

Are you discouraged? Are you bombarded by a sense of worry or fear? Do you feel that you are carrying a heavy load and you feel like you can’t take it anymore?

God invites us to experience peace amidst the mess and chaos in our world. He offers us rest amidst our burdened, tired, and exhausted daily lives.

Stress is a part of life. The question is not, why do we experience stress? The question is, what do we do when stress happens in our lives?

We live in a very stressful world. Stress happens when there are tensions, pressures, threats, or demands, that you feel you are unable to cope with. These tensions, pressures, threats, or demands can come from outside you or from within you.

We often know we are stressed when we feel anxious, uneasy, tense, fearful or panicky, just thinking about unpleasant situations, people or events. How many of you have ever taken one of those stress surveys, like in Reader’s Digest? Maybe it’s an occupational hazard, but every time my wife and I have taken one of those, we seem to be off the scale.

Our body is designed to experience a healthy dose of stress. Stress is our body’s natural or instinctive survival response to cope with physical threat or danger. To cope with emergency situations, the body produces hormones or body fluids that allow us to experience heightened levels of energy, strength, instant reactions, and clear thinking.

Sometimes we deliberately stress, for instance when you’re lifting weights. You stress your muscles so that they grow stronger.

But too much stress causes damage and dysfunction to our body, mind, and spirit. If our stress button is pressed frequently, our body is on almost continuous alert. When our body doesn’t have a chance to rest and recover, we can suffer anxiety, depression and health problems.

An article by Steve Bressert, Ph.D., called “The Impact of Stress,” shows that constant triggering of our stress buttons can cause some of the following.

Physical signs can include:

  • sleep disturbance
  • digestive upsets
  • agitated behavior
  • increased heart rate
  • general restlessness
  • muscle tension
  • chest pains
  • dizziness
  • hyperventilating
  • nervousness
  • high blood pressure
  • lack of energy
  • fatigue

I look at that list and my inclination initially is to say, if you’re nervous and agitated, how can you lack energy, but since I’ve been there, I know that you can.

Cognitive signs of stress include:

  • mental slowness
  • confusion
  • negative attitudes or thoughts
  • constant worry
  • your mind races at times
  • difficulty concentrating
  • forgetfulness
  • difficulty thinking in a logical sequence
  • the sense that life is overwhelming; you just can’t problem-solve

Emotional signs of stress can include:

  • irritation
  • no sense of humor
  • frustration
  • feeling overworked
  • feeling overwhelmed
  • sense of helplessness
  • apathy

Behavioral signs of stress can include:

  • decreased contact with family and friends
  • poor work relations
  • sense of loneliness
  • decreased sex drive
  • failing to set aside times for relaxation
  • avoiding others and others avoiding you because you’re cranky (although I promise you, in the morning, if you’ve come before my caffeine kicks in, that’s the only reason)

We need to learn how to experience rest. The kind of rest that Jesus speaks of in this passage in Matthew today is a much greater sense of rest than you might think. It’s a holistic thing. It’s a God thing, that we do with His help.

If all we needed was phyiscal rest, we could just take a nap. Taking naps is a good thing, by the way. But that’s not all we need. If we needed only emotional rest, we could always take a vacation. But our ultimate need is spiritual rest.

Where can we find spiritual rest? How can we obtain relief regarding our deepest issues of life, at the deepest level of our hearts? For when our soul finds rest, our whole life finds rest as well.

The passage today, Matthew 11:28-30, contains three invitations from Jesus that lead, I believe, to spiritual rest. And we will experience rest for our soul as we respond to these invitations.

The first one is to come to Christ. “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus, in the context of the passage here, is making a plea to those who are burdened by the law. He has been having another argument with the Pharisees – those guys that had 613 rules that you had to follow perfectly or you were just in deep trouble.

He was making a plea to those who in their own strength were trying to please God. He makes a plea to those who have been weighed down with the laws and customs of the Pharisees and Sadducees, who have been told that if they are not perfect, they will suffer God’s wrath.

Christ is speaking to us today as well. We who say we understand God’s grace, and yet often wonder if He loves us, we who constantly in our wrongdoing feel as if we’re no good. This goes all the way back to the beginning, and Paul, as we heard, felt it himself. We who fall so short each day, we have to ask God how he could possibly love us.

Jesus says to God’s people, “Come to me.” Jesus invites us to come to him to experience rest that can only come from him. He calls people who are weary and carrying heavy burdens. Do you feel tired or exhausted? Do you feel that you are carrying a heavy load and like you can’t carry it anymore? Emotionally, not just physically.

Come to Jesus. “Come to me” means to make progress toward Christ. It’s an active verb. You need to yield your will, to drop your agenda, and turn yourself toward God.

We need to realize that nothing in this world can give us true spiritual rest, genuine peace, authentic happiness, and real satisfaction in life. No gurus, no self-help books, no supplements. None of those are necessarily bad things, but they can’t give us that ultimate rest in life.

I saw a phrase that I just love, and it’s going to be a thread throughout this sermon. “You gain a life of rest when you give God the rest of your life.” Let me say that again. I didn’t come up with it, but I really like it. “You gain a life of rest when you give God the rest of your life.”

More often, the search to satisfy our needs on our own leads us to many empty roads. The weariness that Jesus is talking about is the tiresome searching of the soul, and then coming up empty. He promises the gift of rest to those who come to Him. The sense of relief from burdens is real for all who come to Christ and trust in him.

If you are looking for rest, if you long to have a peace with God even when you have fallen short, and the world is crashing down on you, Jesus says, “Come to me.”

You will also experience rest for your soul as you respond to the invitation to walk with Christ. He says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

Yoke is a type of harness that connects a pair of oxen usually, or sometimes horses. It is used metaphorically to refer to submission to a teacher. In New Testament times the phrase, “to take the yoke of” was used by rabbis to refer to “becoming a submitted student of a teacher.”

This is what disciples did. They took on the yoke of their master. And it was a serious commitment, because their master, by custom, was able to ask them to do anything except untie the laces of his sandals, which is something only a slave would do. (It was kind of like being a graduate student.)

The word “yoke” has two dominant figurative ideas. First there is the man-made yoke, and that is the one the Pharisees and Sadducees placed on people, the yoke of rules and religion. Sometimes it happens today.

But this is not the yoke that Jesus speaks of, even though it is the way most people are familiar with that they think leads to God.

Instead there is the God-given yoke, which is the yoke of relationship. Jesus said that his yoke is easy, or “well fitted.” It fits the need. Rules and religion don’t fit the need for personal relationship. His yoke is easy compared to man-made religious yokes.

When somebody asked him once what his rules were, he said, “The first commandment is this, to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” He was quoting from the Shema, back in Deuteronomy 6:4. Then he said, “And the second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s pretty simple to understand. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to carry out, without God’s help. But it is simple to understand. You don’t have to memorize all these rules and regulations, and have a checklist with you all the time: Did I do this? Did I do this? Did I do this? Oh, I missed this. I have to go back and take care of it.

His burden is light compared to the burden of human effort. Jesus commands we take up his yoke to find rest, because while there is no rest in rules and religion, in a personal relationship with God it is based on the already finished work of Jesus. Our burden has been done. It’s been completed for us. We just accept the grace.

A yoke can pictures three things. Connection, first: “Be with Me.” Did you ever notice that yokes, at least in my experience, which is, I admit, somewhat limited, are made for two, not one. You don’t have a one-man yoke.

They’re always paired. We are not meant to go through life living apart from God, or each other. His yoke fits well and is lighter than the one we’ve been pulling by ourselves. We just need to connect to Jesus. Connect to God. Connect with one another.

The second thing that a yoke pictures is direction, as he said int this passage, “Follow Me.” The idea of a yoke pictures the forward motion of two connected together. You cannot be yoked to Jesus and go your own way anymore.

Again, my experience is limited, but it seems to me, when two are yoked, like two oxen or horses are yoked, it’s not very easy for them to go backward. And they certainly can’t go their own ways, because then they get nowhere. The only way they can truly succeed is by going together, forward.

We follow Jesus and his direction for our lives, as we take on his yoke.

The third thing a yoke pictures is cooperation: “Work with Me.” To be yoked together means that we cooperate with His work. We are joined to His work and our lives can make an eternal impact. Implied in there also is that the yoke is a place of labor. Here Jesus is inviting us to walk with Him and work for Him.

Again, you can gain a life of rest when you give God the rest of your life.

When we take the yoke of Christ, we learn that what we do for him totally eclipses anything else that we do. Christ should be our priority. When we work for Christ, we have peace that our Master is looking out for us, and we can worry less about life.

Part of that is we have to trust that God knows better. He has a plan for each and every one of us. We Reformed believers are big on sovereignty, we’re big on divine election and plan, so this should be a familiar concept to us.

There’s a story on the internet that goes like this. Once upon a time an African king had a close friend. This friend had a habit of facing every situation that happened to him, good or bad, by saying, “All is well! God knows better.”

The king and his friend one day left for a hunt. The friend loaded and prepared the weapons for the king. Apparently, the friend missed something in the preparation of one of the weapons. When the king shot it, it took his thumb away.

When examining the situation, the friend observed as always: “All is well! God knows better.” The king answered, “No, this is not good,” and he commanded the soldiers to arrest his friend and put him in prison.

After a year, the king was hunting in a region where apparently cannibals had appeared, and they captured the king and took him to their village. They tied his hands, and piled up the firewood. When they came closer to the fire, they noticed that the king did not have the thumb. As they were superstitious, they never ate anyone who had a part of his body missing.

So they set the king free, after banishing him from their village. When the king arrived back at his palace, he remembered the incident about his thumb and felt remorse for the treatment he gave to his friend. Immediately, he paid a visit to the prison and spoke with his friend.

“You were right,” said the king. “It was good that I lost my thumb.” The king started to tell his friend everything that happened to him. “I am sorry that I have ordered you to prison for such a long period. It was a great mistake.”

“No,” the friend said, “That was a good decision. All is well! God knows better”. The king said, “What do you mean by that? How it can be good decision? I ordered my best friend into prison?”

The friend answered: “If I was not in the prison, certainly I would be with you in the hunt. Then you know what would have happened.”

Are you sometimes discouraged? Are you bombarded by a sense of worry or fear? Do you feel that you are carrying a heavy load and you feel like you can’t take it anymore? Christ invites you to take his yoke, to trust His ways instead of your ways, and believe that God knows better.

The third invitation we have is to learn from Christ. He said, “Learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” in verse 29. His third invitation is to learn from Him. Are you open to learn? When we come to Him, and take up His yoke, part of that is the process of learning. That’s where it begins. Disciples took a master on to learn.

The yoke is a place of learning. We are invited to learn of him, and from him. The problem many of us face today is that we know so little about our Lord. His desire is that we would have a full knowledge of him.

We can only learn of him when we abide with him and in him, when we meditate on God’s Word, when we pray without ceasing, when we search for God’s will. This is one of the important elements of the yoke. It keeps us bound together with Him in a place of closeness where we can be taught.

You cannot learn anything if you are not around the teacher. We have a lot of teachers here and I’m sure they would all agree. Christ desires us to be yoked together with him so that he can teach us. In the yoke we learn from Christ how to be patient in suffering, to walk humbly, to trust implicitly, to love intensely, and to rejoice exceedingly.

Because Jesus is our example, we can learn gentleness. Gentleness and meekness are not weakness, even though in today’s society we tend to equate them as that. Gentleness is not being weak. It does not mean being a doormat. Gentleness is strength under control, not lack of strength.

Oftentimes, religious people can be cold and harsh, but not Jesus. His gentleness draws us to him with our cares and concerns. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone you can pour out your deepest thoughts, a gentle person who has the strength to help?

Because Jesus is our example, we can learn humility – selflessness. Again, those who tend to be very Pharisaic in their religion, they can be arrogant and rude. The very things that turn people off from the church are the very opposite of what Jesus is really like. Hurting, lost, and weary people were drawn to Jesus because he cared for them and met their needs.

He did it without compromising what was important. He did it without failing to say the truth. But he did it in a way that invited them in.

You gain a life of rest when you give God the rest of your life.

There’s a story here about a farmer, and we have farmers here, so even though you guys use tractors mostly, maybe you can tell me if you’ve heard stories that would agree with this.

One day a man went by to see a farmer who was plowing his field with a team of oxen. The man noticed that one of the animals was seemingly bigger than the other so he asked him about it. The response from the farmer was very interesting. He said the big animal was an older animal that was well-trained, and the smaller one was a young animal that was new to the yoke. When the visitor went on to inquire as to why the farmer put them together, this is the answer that he got.

“Well, you see it’s like this. That older ox is the best ox that I have ever had. He knows his way around the field. The reason I put the younger one with him is so the older, more knowledgeable ox could teach him how to plow. If I never put them together, the younger one would never learn. By himself, the younger ox would pull himself to death, but together he learns to cooperate with and rest in the strength of the older ox.”

Does your life feel like the ox that’s pulling himself to death? Rest comes from responding to Jesus’ invitations: Come to me, take my yoke upon you, learn from me. We need to come to Christ, walk with Christ, and to learn from Christ.

There will be times, still, when we feel that life happens too fast and we’re always in a hurry. There will be times when we feel overwhelmed with the demands and pressures of life. I’m sure we’ll feel exhausted.

There may be times we lose that sense of excitement about living every day, when we get discouraged, when we feel like we’re carrying a heavy load and like we can’t take it anymore. Dwell on this verse, this invitation from Christ.

God invites us to experience peace amidst the mess and chaos in our world. He offers us rest amidst our burdened, tired, and exhausted daily lives. With Him, through Him, and in Him, we can find that peace that passes all understanding, and together, we can change the world.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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