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Practicing Grateful Rest

Let us be grateful for God’s blessings and rest in God’s presence.


As we come to the Sunday before Thanksgiving, we often think about what we are thankful for. We think about how the year has gone and reflect on how God has blessed us. Recently, I was exchanging emails with a friend as we were talking about a project that we work on each year and both admitted that we were feeling guilty about how well our 2020s had gone. She noted that her family was wealthy, her husband’s ministry was going well, and her research and writing was continuing to flourish. And as I thought about it, I realized that it has been a good year:

  • I have been offered a number of writing projects.
  • I have spoken at two workshops on online teaching.
  • I am part of a fellowship and have been appointed to our Christian camp’s board.
  • I have been consulting with congregations and coaching ministers.
  • I have even been offered a commentary on 1-3 John!
  • My family is healthy, the college has been relatively spared by the pandemic, and our congregation is managing well.

And, yet, I stand here in front of our camera and am preaching, once again, to an empty audience. There are only three others in the building this morning—my family—and only a total of six people on our entire campus this morning, as a couple are preparing our drive-thru Thanksgiving meal over in the Family Life Center. The pandemic is engulfing our area. We struggle to both stay safe and help others recognize the severity of the pandemic. In addition, so much anxiety and chaos continues to swirl around the election and civil unrest abounds on each side of the political aisle.

And, this week, we come to a national holiday that is about thankfulness, gratitude, family, and unity. Thanksgiving is not a holy day. In the church calendar today is known as Christ the King Sunday and unofficially begins the Advent season. However, the concepts of thanksgiving and gratitude are certainly holy concepts.

(Read Matthew 11:25-30)

From Mission Trips to Pronouncing Woes

To be honest, I do not remember why I chose this text for our Thanksgiving sermon. One of my writing projects this year was an essay on preaching from the Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel that I have spent the least amount of time with. So, Why not?, I thought. Why not preach from Matthew 11 for Thanksgiving? Maybe, if we start at the beginning of the chapter, we can figure out why I chose to preach from our text for Thanksgiving. Maybe I will figure it out before we get there.

Matthew 11 begins with a “summary statement”: “After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee” (11:1). Jesus spent most of the previous chapter ordaining his disciples for mission work and preaching, sending them out to preach and heal, and then continue their training after they have given their mission reports. Matthew, here, says that Jesus turns again to preaching, with his disciples alongside.

As they walk along the highways of Galilee, they are met by a delegation from John the Baptizer, Jesus’ cousin, who is now imprisoned for preaching against sin and corruption. They share a question, a stinging question about Jesus’ identity: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” (11:2). Jesus simply responds by telling these wandering disciples to go back to John and report about what they have heard and seen in Jesus, encouraging—no, challenging—them to speak about the gospel-focused work that they are seeing lived out before their eyes (11:4-6).

Jesus then turns to the crowd and confirms John’s role as the last of the great prophets, those who proclaimed God’s mission among the Jews and looked forward to the coming of the Messiah who would redeem all of humanity (11:7-19), something that only John witnessed.

Then something odd happens. Without any warning, Jesus turns his gaze upon the towns of the Galilean region—the very towns that the disciples have just been preaching and healing in—and speaks a series of “woe statements” against them, something reminiscent of the preaching ministries of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, or Malachi (11:20-24). In this stinging retort, Jesus exclaims that it would be easier for ancient cities like Sodom and Gomorrah or Tyre and Sidon than these towns when the end of time comes. Tyre and Sidon, I can understand. They were not cities open to God’s word—but Sodom and Gomorrah?! These two cities are still an allusion for places of scum and villainy. And then—then—Jesus prays, which brings us back to our text for today.

Prayer of Thanksgiving

Matthew skimps on the details of when or where the events of this passage take place, saying only, “At that time” (11:25). And, at that time, Jesus prays what seems to be an odd prayer: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do” (11:25-26). Although it seems to bite with sarcasm, the prayer has an indirect way of asserting a truth about something.”[1]

Wait, how do you know that Jesus is praying, you may ask. Well, I am glad you asked. Although the NIV renders the Greek word here as “praise,” the NRSV denotes the traditional meaning of “thank,” such as in offering thanks to a deity for offering something to the worshipper that is being acknowledged by the worshipper.[2] Here, Jesus thanks God for who God has revealed the gospel to. As Tom Long notes, “Jesus amazingly gives thanks in a prayer that God is gathering around him a community of the lowly, the poor, and the weak, even if this inevitably means rejection by the mighty, the rich, and the self-sufficient.”[3] Jesus, in what we will call a prayer of thanksgiving, actually thanks God for sending him to those who traditionally would not be allowed to learn the scriptures in such an intimate fashion.

The problem is not with learning or being cultured. Those who seek wisdom—true wisdom—will do so only in humility and self-abasement, not through arrogance and self-sufficiency. The Greek word for “wisdom” is sophia, which carries a connotation of discovery and journey to it. Sophia was one of the Greek muses and eventually the early Church Fathers would see sophia as one of the essential elements for a devout spiritual life. So, again, the problem is not with learning; the problem is who Jesus says can learn. This is a reversal from common rabbinic literature, where only the elite could hope to learn wisdom (Qoheleth Rabba 1:7). Jesus says that God’s wisdom comes to anyone who is seeking it, especially those who know they need it.

Proclamation of Revealing

This leads Jesus to make a proclamation of revealing in 11:27: “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Both the NIV’s “committed to” and the NRSV’s “handed over to” carry the idea of passing on the rabbinic tradition from one generation to the next.[4] We see this concept first articulated in the beautiful passage in Deuteronomy 6, known as the Shema:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates (Deut. 6:4-9).

The command given to the ancient Israelites was to teach their children and grandchildren about God and God’s Word at every possible opportunity. They were to spend so much time talking about God that it feel as if the words of Scripture had been tied around their heads like a bandana or around their wrists like a bracelet. One way contemporary Jews symbolize this is by posting a small plaque of this text on the frame of their front doors, which is kissed when they enter or exit the house.

Jesus, here, speaks about the reciprocal nature of revelation that is found within both himself and God. One can only know God through Jesus. However, we can only truly know Jesus from what God does (or will do) through him. We see this when Jesus rises out of the waters of his baptism by John, when God breaks open the heavens and declares, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17). We can also see it when Jesus is asked why he teaches in parables (Matt. 13:11) and when he is questioned about his authority to perform signs (Matt. 16:17).

It abolishes the need for a “tidy and systematic logic” that poses “human freedom” against “God’s omnipotence.”[5] On one hand, there are those who argue that humanity has the ability to choose salvation for ourselves. On the other hand, there are those who argue that humanity has had the decision made for them before the foundations of the universe were laid. In Jesus, however, both of these views are held in tandem—God chose before the foundations of the universe were laid to reveal the gospel to all, however not all will freely and gladly receive it.

Proposition of Resting

This leads Jesus to offer a proposition of resting in the last part of our passage: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (11:28-30). This passage is beautiful and offers more solace during the age of COVID-19.

Although it could serve as a symbol for oppression and subjugation, the yoke was traditionally a symbol of obedience to and practice of the law. Thus, one would find rest in God by following God’s Word. We see this in the opening words to the Book of Psalms:

Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers (Ps. 1:1-3).

Jesus’ yoke is “light” not because it is easy, for Jesus demanded obedience (Matt. 5:21-48), described his way as difficult (7:13-14), and decreed that death is expected (10:34-38). Yet, to take Jesus’ yoke “means to live under God’s rule and by God’s way, neither accepting oppression as the way things must be nor returning violence for violence.”[6] Jesus invites us to enroll in his school of discipleship during this time of Thanksgiving by learning this first—gratitude.

Practicing Gratitude

In her book on spiritual disciplines, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun defines gratitude this way: “Gratitude is a loving and thankful response toward God for his presence with us and within the world.”[7] As we come to our national time of thanksgiving but also as we strive to continue on the path of discipleship, I would like to encourage you to practice gratitude by practicing one of the following devotional exercises:

First, begin a gratitude journal. Begin taking note of all the things that you are thankful each day. Whether it be the food in your cupboard, the money in your bank account or the health in your body, note these things each day in a notebook or on your note-taking app.

Second, say “thank you” for one specific thing each day. You may want to add this to the previous exercise, as a way of verbally expressing your gratitude. However, when you pray, think specifically of one thing that you would like to thank God for. This fits into the “daily bread” component of the model prayer (Matt. 6:6), especially when we express our gratitude on a daily basis.

Finally, abstain from comparing yourself to others. Part of being grateful is accepting the particulars of our lives. It is so easy to look at someone further up the ladder and feel inferior with our chicken flavored ramen. Yet, it is also easy to look to someone back behind us and feel superior that we do not to ask for help from the local food bank. Instead, be grateful for what you have—and maybe share your extra pack of ramen with that person behind you.


Calhoun notes, “Thanksgiving is possible not because everything goes perfectly but because God is present.”[8] In a time such as this, it is easy to not express gratitude. However, if we are to continue down the path of discipleship, let us be grateful for God’s blessings and rest in God’s presence this holiday season.

[1]David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament Series (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys, 2001), 132.

[2]It should be noted that the term exomologoumai is used only here and in Luke 10:21, although the root verb exomologeo occurs slightly more frequently in the New Testament. The meaning of the other occurrences seems to be dictated by context.

[3]Thomas G. Long, Matthew, Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 130.

[4]Garland, Reading Matthew, 134.

[5]Long, Matthew, 131.

[6]Stanley P. Saunders, Preaching the Gospel of Matthew: Proclaiming God’s Presence (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 102.

[7]Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2005), 29.

[8]Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 30.

Rob O’Lynn teaches preaching at Kentucky Christian University, Johnson University, and Fuller Theological Seminary, and is a minister in Ashland, Kentucky.

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