All of us enjoy receiving invitationsto a meal, a wedding, or a concert. Usually, when the invitation is printed on a little card, there are cryptic letters written at the bottom: RSVP. We know what those letters mean. They are an abbreviation of a French request to reply to the invitation. Unfortunately, not everyone knows that.
A couple found political asylum in this country during the Second World War. They came from Eastern or Central Europe, and they were not well versed in American culture. One day they received an invitation to a wedding, and at the bottom of the invitation were those cryptic letters: RSVP. In his thick, Eastern European accent, the husband said, "Vife, vat does it mean: RSVP? " So they thought for a while, until inspiration dawned, and the husband said, "Vife, I know vat it means: Remember Send Vedding Presents."
They made a mistake by imaging that the message was a demand when, in reality, it was an invitation. Unfortunately, there are many people who make the same mistake about Jesus Christ and the gospel. They think it is a demand when in reality it is an offera free invitation.
In Matthew 11:2530, Jesus speaks what are among the most tender and appealing words he ever uttered: Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. These words have been immortalized in different ways. Some of us know them from Handel's Messiah, in that famous aria in which he combines these words with others from the prophet Isaiah: "He shall feed his flock like a shepherd. Come unto him." Members of the Anglican Communion may know that Thomas Cranmer, architect of the Anglican Prayer Book, incorporated these words into the Anglican Communion service.
For myself, I can never hear these words without remembering the time when, in 1996, I found myself on South Georgia Island, about 800 miles east of the Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. We landed at a place called Gritviken, which is an abandoned Norwegian whaling station where the famous explorer Ernie Shackleton is buried. There, close to the seashore, is a tiny little Norwegian Lutheran church, recently restored and now surrounded by penguins and elephant seals. I approached the little church and pushed the front door. It yielded to my touch, so I went in. On the east wall of that little Lutheran church, hundreds of miles from anywhere, I read in the Norwegian language: "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
Jesus addresses two invitations to us, preceded by two statements about himself. Those two statements offer more about the knowledge of God. The word that is common to both statements is the word "reveals."
God is revealed only by Jesus Christ.
In Matthew 11:27, Jesus explains, "Nobody knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Only Jesus knows God, so only he can make him known. That means, of course, that only Christ can make the Father fully and finally known. He is partially known in other waysin the order of loveliness in the created universe; in the moral demands of our conscience; in the unfolding developments of history. Yet even though creation tells me of his glory, conscience of his righteousness, and history of his power and providence, nobody tells me of his love for sinners or his plan to redeem us except Jesus Christ. This is why every inquiry into the truth of Christianity must begin with the historic person of Jesus.
The most unnerving thing about Jesus of Nazareth is the quiet, unassuming, yet confident way in which he advanced his stupendous claims. There was no fanfare of trumpets, no boasting, no ostentation; his manner was altogether unaffected. Yet there he was, daring to call the Lord of heaven and earth his Father, saying that he himself is the Father's only Son, stating that all things have been delivered to him by his Father (in other words, that he was the heir of the universe), and claiming that only he knew the Father and only the Father knew him. In other words, there exists between the Father and the Son a uniquely intimate and reciprocal relationship. Jesus' claim is absolute and exclusive; no other religious teacher in history has ever dared to make it. God is revealed fully and finally only by Jesus Christ.
God is revealed only to little children.
In 11:25 Jesus prays, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you've hidden these things from the wise and clever and revealed them to little children." The Greek word is literally "babies." By "babies" Jesus meant not the young in years, but those whowhatever their ageare childlike and humble in their approach. Babies, in the vocabulary of Jesus, are sincere and humble seekers after the truth. From everybody else, Jesus said, God hides himself.
Don't misunderstand this. This is not a call to copy the ostrich and bury our heads in the sand, and it's not a summons to murder our intellect or deny the importance of thought. It is simply to acknowledge the limitations of our human mindsthat when we're seeking God our mind flounders helplessly out of its depth, because God is infinite in his being, and we are limited and finite. Our little minds, capable as they are of remarkable achievements in the empirical sciences, are lost when seeking God. If then, we stand on our proud pedestal with our spectacles on our nose, to scrutinize and criticize God, we shall never find him. It's not only unseemly to treat God in that way; it's unproductive. If we seek God in that way, we shall never find him. If, on the other hand, we step down from our lofty and critical platform and humble ourselves before God, confess our inability to discover him, and read the Gospels with the open, unprejudiced mind of a little child, God will reveal himself. He reveals himself to those who, spiritually speaking, are little children.
I wonder if there is somebody in church this morning that has never really found God. Is this the reason: that you've been seeking him in the wrong spirit? God hides himself from intellectual dilettantes, but he reveals himself to those who are humble in seeking him. What's required of us is not that we close our minds, but that we open them. It's not that we stifle our minds; it is that we humble them.
Here are two truly amazing claims that Jesus made. First, God hides himself from the intellectually clever and reveals himself to babies. Second, God is revealed only by Jesus Christ.
Jesus invites us to come to him.
Now we move on from the two statements Jesus makes to the two invitations he issues. The first invitation is, "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." Notice to whom that invitation is addressed: he's speaking to us, to human beings. He's far from being complimentary. He likens us to oxen laden with a load that threatens to crush them. Jesus assumed that humankind is burdened. I, for one, do not doubt his diagnosis.
There is, for example, the burden of our anxieties and our fears, of our temptations and responsibilities, and of our loneliness. There is the sense that life has no meaning or purpose. Above all, there is the burden of our failures that are properly called our "sins." Does our conscience never feel its guilt? Does our heart never bow down at the sense of shame? Have we never cried out, as the Book of Common Prayer compels us to do, "the burden of them is intolerable." If these things are not part of our experience, I fear we shall never accept the invitation of Christ. It is the burdened he invites to come to him. Jesus said in another passage, "Those who are healthy don't need a doctor, but only those who are sick." We come to him when we sense our spiritual sickness, when we sense our burdens. The very first step to take toward Jesus Christ is a frank and humble admission that we need him. Nothing keeps people away from Jesus Christ more than our arrogance and unwillingness to acknowledge that we need him desperately.
What does Jesus offer with this invitation to the burdened? He offers to ease their yoke, lift their burden, give them rest and set them free. Marvelous! Nobody else can do that but Christ, for he is portrayed in the New Testament as the supreme burden-bearer. He bore our burden when he died on the cross. Listen again to some of these verses from the New Testament: "The Lord has laid on [Jesus] the iniquity of us all." "Behold the Lamb of God who lifts up and bears away the sin of the world." "He was once offered to bear the sins of many." "He bore our sins in his own body on the tree."
Jesus is the sin bearer, the burden bearer. If we come to him, he will lift our burden from us. This is the very essence of the Christian good news: Almighty God loves us. In spite of our sin and guilt and rebellion, he loves us and came after us in Jesus Christ. He took our nature upon him, becoming a human being. He lived the perfect life of love; he had no sin of his own for which atonement was necessary. Then on the cross, he identified himself with our sin and guilt. In fact, he was made sin with our sins, and he was made a curse instead of us. In that Godforsaken darkness of the cross, Jesus endured the condemnation we deserve. Nowon the grounds of his sin-bearing deathif we come to him, he will lift the burden and give us rest: full and free forgiveness together with a new birth and a new beginning.
John Bunyan eloquently expresses this truth in his allegory Pilgrim's Progress:
He ran thus until he came to a place somewhat ascending, and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulcher. So I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do, till it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said, with a merry heart, "He has given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death." Then he stood still awhile to look and to wonder, for it was very surprising to him that the sight of the cross should thus ease his burden. So he looked and looked again, even until the springs that were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks.
Jesus invites us to come to him if we're burdened; but what do we have to do? Nothing, except come to him. Salvation is a giftabsolutely free and utterly undeservedand there is no substitute for a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.
Some people try to make it complicated, becoming engrossed in the externals of religion. They come to church to be baptized; they come to the bishop to be confirmed; they come to a pastor to seek his counsel. They come to everything and everybody except the One who invites them to comeJesus Christ. It's possible to come to all those other things and never come to Christ himself. Don't stumble over the simplicity of his invitation.
Some years ago there was a famous professor of Hebrew in Edinburgh University. His name was Dr. John Duncan; he was known affectionately by his students as Rabbi Duncan, because of his excellence in Hebrew. Such were his attainments in the Semitic languages that his students were persuaded he said his prayers in Hebrew. One night two of his students crept quietly along the corridor outside his bedroom and put their ear to the keyhole, where they expected to hear great flights of Hebrew rhetoric and mysticism. This is what they heard instead: "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon a little child. Pity my simplicity. Suffer me to come to thee." If a Hebrew professor can do it, I see no reason why you and I shouldn't do it. "Come to me," he says simply, "and I will give you rest."
Jesus invites us to take his yoke upon us.
Jesus' second invitation is this: "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me." I marvel at the balance of the Bible. The Christian life is not just taking it easy and enjoying rest. When we come to Christ, he first eases our yoke and then fits his yoke upon us in its place. He not only lifts our burden, but he places his burden upon us instead. There are too many of us who want the rest without the yoke; we want to lose our burden, but we don't want to gain Christ's. Nevertheless, the two invitations of Jesus belong together, and we have no liberty to pick and choose between them.
What is the yoke of Jesus? A yoke is a horizontal wooden bar laid on the necks of oxen. The Jews spoke of the yoke of Torah, the yoke of the Law, because in the Old Testament a yoke is a symbol of submission to authority. What Jesus meant when he said, "Take my yoke upon you," he explains by adding, "and learn from me." To take upon us the yoke of Christ is to enter his school, to become his disciple, to regard him not only as our Savior but as our Lord and Teacher, which includes submitting our minds and wills to his lordship, bringing every part of our life under his sovereign control. Does that sound hard? It really isn't. It's the way of liberation, because the burden we lose when we come to Christ is heavy, but the burden we gain when we come to Christ is light.
What Jesus is inviting us to do in coming to him and learning from him is to find the way of freedom. Jesus describes himself as humble and gentle in heart; you have nothing to fear. He is a patient, gentle master, and he lays upon us an easy yoke and a light burden if we will but come to him.
Did you notice that, although there are two invitations, the promise attached to the two invitations is exactly the same? Jesus says, "Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me and you will find rest unto your souls." The way to find rest is to lose our burden at the cross and allow Christ to put his burden and yoke upon us instead. Freedom is not found in discarding the yoke of Christ; it's found in losing our own burden. It's not found in discarding his authority; it's an amazing truth that freedom is found under the yoke of Christ. This is one of the great paradoxes of the Christian life: under his yoke we find rest; through service we find freedom; when we lose ourselves in loving, we find ourselves; when we die to our self-centeredness, we begin to live.
John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."