“Come to me, all 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
Some years ago I read a story about the experience of a woman who was, at that time, going through a divorce. One Sunday afternoon she was standing with her 15-year-old daughter in the church sanctuary when the pastor’s wife approached: “I hear you are divorcing. What I can’t understand is that if you love Jesus and he loves Jesus, why are you doing that?” Before that moment the pastor’s wife had never really spoken to this lady, and the abrupt rebuke in the presence of her daughter was stunning. The woman said: “The pain of it was that my husband and I did both love Jesus, but the marriage was broken beyond mending. If she had just put her arms around me and said, “I’m so sorry…” (Paul Tournier, Guilt and Grace: A Psychological Study [New York: HarperCollins, 1982]).
I learned last week that the celebrity chief and travel documentarian, Anthony Bourdain, took his own life at the age of 61. Whether it be a man who is harboring a guilt over an old sin, or a woman who can’t put out of her mind an abortion that took place ten years ago, folks are struggling. And what struggling folks are looking for is grace. But what they commonly encounter is shame, the threat of punishment, and a sense of judgment. They’re looking for grace, but finding ungrace.
A. What Our Mission Is
The last time we were together, I spoke about “Our Message.” Today I’m continuing in our summer series on the church and I’m going to talk about “Our Mission.”
Every congregation should have a mission, right? Well, our mission is simple: At NorthPointe we want to forge and foster a culture of rest.
When folks mess up the last place they usually think of going is to the church. Why is that? Because too often what they’ve found from the church is ungrace. We want to change that. We want to be the first place they think of going, because here they find a message of love and a culture of grace. We want to smell like Jesus.
B. What Our Mission Isn’t
You know, the culture which was on display in my story has a technical name. You might have heard it before, maybe you haven’t. Technical name is “legalism.” You don’t have to know what that means because I’m going to tell you. Legalism is when the law of God is pulled out of its original context and people do crazy things with it.
There are a couple types of legalism:
1. The Moral Club
There’s what I call The Moral Club. This is when folks think that the Christian life is all about is rule-keeping, they’re preoccupied by do’s and dont’s. The Moral Club has separated the law from the lawgiver and his purpose in giving the law.
Did you know that God pursued a relationship with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob long before he gave the law to Moses? Yup. The law has a couple of purposes, but at the end of the day, what the law does more than anything else is show you that you can’t keep the law well enough and long enough to get any mileage with God. In other words, it shows you your need for a savior. It shows us humans who want nothing to do with God, just how much we need God.
The Moral Club doesn’t get this truth, so The Moral Club isn’t cleaving to Jesus with all of its strength. It’s cleaving to it’s own success at rule-keeping, to put God into a quid pro quo scenario.
2. The Moral Club Plus
There is also another type of legalism. I call this The Moral Club Plus—it’s kinda like an iPhone 8+—it’s got the same operating system, but a larger screen.
In this club, civic laws and cultural traditions are added to God’s law and treated as divine commands. Don’t bring coffee into the sanctuary, don’t play cards, don’t have a glass of wine with dinner, don’t smoke, or chew, or go with girls who do.
Did you know that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees over this type of legalism? He said: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:6–8).
The humorist Erma Bombeck commented on such dead legalism in one of her columns, writing:
“In Church the other Sunday I was intent on a small child who was turning around smiling at everyone he wasn’t gurgling, spitting, humming, kicking, tearing the hymnals, or rummaging through his mother’s handbag. He was just smiling. Finally, his mother jerked him about and in a stage whisper that could be heard in a little theater off Broadway said, ‘Stop that grinning! You’re in church!’ With that, she gave him a belt and as the tears rolled down his cheek added, ‘That’s better,’ and returned to her prayers.”
She went on to say that she wanted to grab this child and tell him about her God. The happy God. The smiling God. The God who had to have a sense of humor to have created the likes of us.
If you can’t smile, laugh, sing, dance in the community where the gospel is suppose to be found, then where else is there left to go?
The gospel is itself naturally offensive, because it paints us as people in need of grace. Woe to us if we add to that natural offense by turning Christianity into The Moral Club, where all rule-keeping leads to is more rule-keeping.
I’m as Good as I’m Going to Get
I have a confession to make: I’m about as good as I’m going to get. I’ve been told all my life that I’m supposed to get better and better, day after day. I used to think that if I could just stop speeding on the freeway, I’d be perfect. But then God showed me how self-centered and defensive I am. Then, he showed me how easily I lose my temper. Then, I said, “God stop showing me, I get the point.”
I did something once that was bad—well, I’ve done lots of things, but I’m not going to tell you. Anyway, I fudged the ages of a couple of youth by 6 months so they could ride horse and the rental company could get rich. When a lady in my church found out, she was furious. And she told me, “I expect my pastor to be more holy than I am.” Instead of owning it, I defensively asked her, “Do you ever speed on the freeway?” Her reply nearly knocked me over: “No. But my husband does.” Oh, okay, I see . . . I don’t think she ever forgave me. I was wrong, but my biggest sin wasn’t letting kids ride horses, it was not owning it.
Many are going to be disappointed in me for what I’m going to say next, but here goes nothing: I’m not holier than you and I’m not going to pretend to be anymore.
“Whoa… you can’t say that, Pastor. You need to be better, so you can give us the top 10 list on how to be better.” Folks say that because somewhere along the line we’ve gotten a hold of the idea that Christianity is all about the life of the Christian; when in actuality it’s about—and it has always been about—the life of God for us.
I used to think that if I read the Bible more, prayed longer, listened to only Christian music, and hung out with only Christian people that I would get better. I don’t all of that didn’t amount to a hill of beans. And so I got depressed. I was working at being religious, but I was full of sorrow. Just so you know, when Jesus calls out to “those who labor and are heavy laden” this is who he’s referring to. He’s not talking about exhaustion from your 9-to-5 job, cutting the grass, or chasing kids.
C.S. Lewis wrote something absolutely brilliant I want to read to you:
“Either we give up trying to be good, or else we become very unhappy indeed. For, make no mistake: if you are really going to try to meet all the demands made on the natural self, it will not have enough left over to live on. The more you obey your conscience, the more your conscience will demand of you. And your natural self, which is thus being starved and hampered and worried at every turn, will get angrier and angrier. In the end, you will either give up trying to be good, or else become one of those people who, as they say, “live for others” but always in a discontented, grumbling way—always wondering why the others do not notice it more and always making a martyr of yourself. And once you have become that you will be a far greater pest to anyone who has to live with you than you would have been if you had remained frankly selfish” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [New York: HarperOne, 2002 (1952)], 157).
I’ve taken Lewis’s advice: I’ve given up.
Now, this doesn’t mean I’m trying to be bad. Nor it doesn’t mean I think the law of God is obsolete—I don’t and it’s not. God’s law tells me what sin is, and a sin remains a sin. But I don’t get closer to God by paying dues in The Moral Club; I get closer to God by knowing my radical need for Jesus.
How to Rest in the Gospel
In the rest of our time this morning, I’m going to teach you how to rest in Jesus. And if you listen to what I’m going to tell you, you’ll feel more free than ever before because you’ll probably feel closer to God too.
A. Come to Me . . .
When Jesus says in Matthew 11: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden . . .” he is saying, “When you’re weighed down with the work of washing up your life, with the sorrow over habitual sin, with the costliness of authentic confession, with the depression of feeling distant from God, let me be the door through which you pass through to God.”
Why would he say something so simple as “Come to me”? Why wouldn’t he say, “Here’s how you can fix it; here’s some penance you can perform”? Why? Because . . .
1. You already know more work isn’t going to lighten the load.
2. Jesus doesn’t want your work in the first place; he wants you. It’s only when you discover yourself in that over-burdened place that you can admit you want him too.
6 weeks ago someone destroyed my mailbox. I heard a boom in the middle of the night. There was rubber in street, tire tracks in my yard, and my mailbox and post was shattered into pieces laying in the neighbor’s yard. So, last Saturday, I finally got started on putting up a new mailbox. The first task was to drill a hole for the post. I picked up an auger from the rental shop at 7:30am, brought it home and went to work. About 10 minutes later I hit a hunk of concrete. The auger stopped dead, but the engine threw me and torqued my arm so badly it went numb. So I texted Brittany from the front yard, “Help me before I die!” She got out of bed and came to my rescue. You see, my need took me to Brittany, which brought us into connection. I didn’t need instructions on how to do the job better; I needed her to take the load off of me.
The gospel announces that Jesus has taken the load off of you. The only way you’re ever going to be holy—which means the only way you’re ever going to be dedicated to God—is by letting go of the idea that you can get better, and instead trust Jesus and his grace. Trusting him with your load, binds you to him in faith. And friends, that’s a relationship. Genesis 15:6 says, “Abram believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness,” in other words, “Abram put his trust in the Lord, and because of this the Lord was pleased with him and accepted him.”
Yet we struggle with trusting, don’t we? Why do we struggle to lean into grace? I can think of two reasons:
1. We can’t imagine grace is true. The world works by conditionality. Society demands two-way love: If you achieve, then you can have meaning, security, respect, love, and so on. We understand that; we’re comfortable with that.
2. We struggle because grace wrestles control right out of our hands. Conditionality keeps us in control: If I do ‘X’, then I’m assured that ‘Y’ will happen. And we like being in control.
Grace, however, is one-way love. “Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable” (Paul Zaul quoted in Tullian Tchividjian, One-Way Love [Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013], 32). Grace is “unconditional love.”
B. Learn From Me . . .
So Jesus says, “Come, let me bear the load,” and he also says, “Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart.”
Jesus is compassionate. When you go to him with “your stuff” he’ll not slam you, or shame you, or humiliate you, or make fun of you, or abuse you. He has the right to judge you, but when you look into your judge’s face, you’re going to see the face of your savior. You can come to him because he’s going to love you. And it’s not because sin doesn’t matter. It’s because God loves broken people, because broken people is all that there are.
I was married for 21 years before I woke up one day and found myself divorced. I’m not going to tell you my story, but I’ll tell you that I didn’t want a divorce. I went through counseling with a couple of men who pastored me well for years. I also spent a few years in the care of a great psychologist. In my many years of feeling alone and rejected, at times I was disillusioned about God. How could he let this happen to me? Then, I felt shame. I was a pastor, author, and professor, but what could I offer to the people if I wasn’t perfect? What would happen to my ministry? What was God doing with me?
Sometimes when you’re in the dark it’s really hard to trust God; it’s hard even to believe there is a God. When you can’t trace God’s hand, trust his heart (Charles Spurgeon).
What is Jesus showing us in his gentleness and compassion? He’s showing us the Father’s heart—on this Father’s Day Sunday. In the midst of our mess, in the midst of our ups and downs, Jesus says, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9).
Life hurts when your spouse doesn’t reciprocate love. Life hurts when your kids are emotionally hurting and you can do little to help. Life hurts when they’ve gone of the rails and you can’t bring them back. Life hurts when your dreams get shattered like my mailbox. Life hurts when you try hard to make everything turn out right guided by your best thoughts, but it doesn’t. Life hurts when you’ve got no assurance that you are loved and secure with God.
When those hurts pile up our natural inclination is to do more and try harder to get and keep God’s attention: “See me, Lord! Love me, Lord! Bless me, Lord!” But here Jesus saying in this passage: “I already do. I already have. So cut the chords to your cart. Take mine.” Jesus wants us to take his because it’s light; he isn’t demanding. There’s rest with him because he did all the work that needs doing.
There’s a story about a pastor named Nate Larkin. You can read about his story in his book Samson and the Pirate Monks. Anyway, Nate was a graduate of Princeton and a successful pastor, but I’m going to let him tell you his story . . .
Roll the Video
A friend of mine interviewed Nate shortly after his book came out. And the thing that stood out in that interview was Nate’s laughter. It was infectious, free, and delightful. It was the laughter of a man who no longer had to pretend, hide, or play a role. It was the laughter of the redeemed.
That’s a picture of a man who is gotten rid of their own yolk, and taken on Jesus’. It’s also a picture of a man who found the rest Jesus promised. And this bring me to my last point.
C. Rest In Me . . .
We can rest because Jesus was our substitute. He brings us into the arms of the good, good Father. There we find refuge; there our conscience is quieted with love.
When you trust in God’s grace on specific days against specific things, you’ll find release from the burden, as well as the relaxation of tension, anxiety, and fear. You’ll be connected to God in that trust and know the joy of it, and you might even laugh. For “what matters most about you in God’s sight is not the bad or good things you’ve done but your trust and openness to Christ versus your self-trust and defensiveness toward Christ” (Ray Ortlund, Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014], 34).
The Culture of a Church Resting in the Gospel
When you and I are meeting grace like this something amazing happens: a community with the culture of grace is born.
One theologian spoke about such a grace-filled a community:
“A gospel-centered church is marked by a beautiful humane culture of grace. The good news of God’s grace beautifies how we treat one another. In fact the horizontal reveals the vertical. How we treat one another reveals what we really believe about God as opposed to what we say we believe” (Ray Ortlund).
When the former US Vice-President Hubert Humphrey died people from all over the world attended his funeral. All were welcome, except one—former President Richard Nixon, who had just dragged himself and the country through the humiliation and shame of Watergate. As eyes turned away and conversations ran dry around him, Nixon could feel the ostracism being ladled out to him.
Then Jimmy Carter, the serving US President, walked into the room. Carter was of a different party from Nixon, and as he moved towards his seat President Carter noticed Nixon standing all alone. Carter immediately changed course, walked over to Richard Nixon, held out his hand, and smiling genuinely and broadly embraced Nixon and said, “Welcome home, Mr President! Welcome home!”
Newsweek reported the incident, writing: “If there was a turning point in Nixon’s long ordeal in the wilderness, it was that moment and that gesture of love and compassion.”
Our mission at NorthPointe is forge and foster a culture of rest by welcoming each other home from the wilderness and pointing each other to Jesus who offers to takes our heavy loads and give us unconditional love in return. That’s not a bad deal at all.