Christmas Eve: A Weary World Rejoices (Matt 11:28-30)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached in December 2021*

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.” – Matt 11:28-30

Christmas is a time where we gather to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus. It is a time where we sit in stunned wonder that the infinite God became an infant. That the God who spoke the world into creation suddenly couldn’t speak any words. That the all-powerful God who holds His scepter over the kingdoms of earth now could not hold his head up on His own. What humility, what condescension! But Jesus did not descend and take on flesh to remain an infant. The little child in a manger grows and becomes a man who will die for the sins of His people for the forgiveness of their sins and then resurrect from the dead. The purpose of Christmas is Easter.

Between Christmas and Easter we get the works and teachings of Jesus, we see His reason for coming to the world, who He came to save, and what His death meant. And in Matthew 11:28-30 we find one of the most sublime pictures of what He has come to offer: rest. Three things we see from this passage: Jesus wants us to come to Him; Jesus wants us to rest; Jesus wants us to know His heart.

Jesus Wants Us to Come to Him

Christmas is a celebration of how Jesus has come to us, but in His coming to us, He invites us to come to Him. Many religious traditions invite you to come, so to speak, to them—you adopt their teaching, you participate in their rituals, you keep their rules. And in many religious traditions it is only after you do all of these things (and do them sufficiently enough), that you get salvation, nirvana, or enlightenment. But Jesus offers us something different. He tells us to come to Him, but only after He has first come to us. He has condescended to us, taken on skin and flesh, became touchable, weak, limited—mortal. And He did all of this not merely at the risk of His life, but at the cost of His life. It is one thing for a rescuer to plan some daring escape, knowing that he runs the risk of losing his life in the process; it is another thing altogether for him to know that if he attempts the rescue, he will perish, and still chooses to go in. Jesus came precisely so He could lay down His life to rescue us. Jesus came to us because we, on our own, could never come to Him.

But Jesus doesn’t leave us where we are. He comes to us, but then invites us to come to Him. Which means that Jesus is inviting us to walk away from our own pattern of life and to follow Him. Jesus loves us enough to not leave us where we are. Notice, that when Jesus invites us to Him, He doesn’t invite us to a system, or a contract, or 12 steps to a become more productive—He invites us to Himself, “Come to me.” Christianity is not a welcome to a program, but a person. 

Also, notice in His offer He describes Himself as a teacher: “learn from me.” Jesus assumes that there is truth He possesses that you need to learn. When we come to Him, He is asking us to come with the humility of one who acknowledges that we don’t have everything in our lives together and Jesus has the answers we need. If you have thought that you were clever enough or smart enough or strong enough to make it through life on your own but have found that your best laid plans, hopes, dreams, and ambitions have not given you freedom, but weariness; that the same dullness and guilt and boredom and bleariness is there, then Jesus invites you to come learn from Him today. 

Jesus Wants Us to Rest

Jesus invites us to come to Him so that we can find rest. Jesus looks at us and says, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, (or burdened), and I will give you rest.” Jesus knows that we are burdened. In Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Ebenezer Scrooge’s dead business partner visits him in the night and he is wrapped in coils of heavy chain. When Scrooge asks his friend why he wears such a thing, his friend responds: “I wear the chain I forged in life…I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.” The chain represents his sins—his greed, his cruelty, and his lack of compassion for his fellow man—all things that Scrooge himself is guilty of. The ghost then asks Scrooge: “Is it’s pattern strange to you? Or would you know…the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?”

We may not all be Ebenezer Scrooge, but Jesus assumes that all of us carry a burden. We are “heavy laden.” Like the ghost, we carry the weight of our sins that we have chosen, but like Scrooge we are often so distracted with life and our pursuits that we are blind to the chain, only somewhat sensing an imperceptibly growing weight bearing us down. Life keeps going on, but we are slumping more and more. Perhaps you are not religious and one of the things that you dislike about Christianity is that you think it makes everyone feel guilty by talking about sins. And if someone is carrying a heavy burden, it can certainly be irritating for someone to walk by and comment, “Wow, that looks heavy!” and leave them to struggle. But it is another thing entirely for someone to walk by and say, “Wow, that looks heavy,” and then lifts the burden off them. Jesus was not born, Christmas did not happen, and Jesus did not die on the cross just to walk around and say, “Wow, that looks heavy!” Rather Jesus invites the weary and the heavy laden to Himself to take the chains of their sins, their guilt, off them, and onto Himself, he was born to “save His people from their sins,” (Matt 1:21).

What do you fear others finding out about you most? What is the one thing you can’t forgive yourself for? Your anger, your abortion, your greed, your promiscuity, your addiction—maybe you can’t forgive yourself for those things, but Jesus can. Perhaps you cannot let go of your sins because you know that things must be made right, you need to make it up, or you need to punish yourself; atonement must be made. And, in a way, you’re right. No amount of meditation, or good deeds, or exciting distractions will erase what you’ve done. And this is exactly why Christmas happened. So that a Savior could come and He could take your sins, He could take your guilt, He could take your place, and He could make atonement, make it right, pay the debt that your sins had deserved through His death. When Jesus died on the cross, when He looked up to the heavens and said, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” it was because He was suffering the punishment we deserved. And He did, totally. So that now free forgiveness can be offered to all who turn to Him.

“Let our miseries drive us to seek Christ; …he admits none to the enjoyment of his rest but those who sink under the burden,” (John Calvin, on Matt 11:28).

So bring the darkest, blackest, most shameful part of your soul, bring your thousands of failed resolutions to do better next time, bring your embarrassment, bring your doubt, bring your guilt and heave them onto Jesus. You may have unforgivable sins, but there is an unimaginably kind Savior, and He can do what you cannot. He can give rest, sweet rest that comes from total, real, unqualified, complete, unconditional, no holds barred, absolute forgiveness.

Jesus Wants Us to See His Heart

But this isn’t all Jesus offers us. You notice the strange paradox of this passage: Jesus invites us to come to Him to find rest, but do you see what He offers? A yoke. “Take my yoke upon you.” A yoke is a wooden instrument placed on the shoulders of cattle or oxen that harnesses their strength, usually attached to a plow. So Jesus promises us rest, but then offers an instrument of labor? Even more paradoxically, He states, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” One writer comments, “What helium does to a balloon, Jesus’ yoke does to us.” So Jesus offers us His yoke, but promises it is light and easy; Jesus wants us to abandon the heavy yoke of the world and of our sins and replace it with His. This shows us that Jesus is not offering a forgiveness that is disconnected from Himself. If we are to come to Jesus to find rest, we must be willing to learn from Him, to follow Him, to submit to Him. We do not receive help from Jesus the way we receive help from our government—Jesus doesn’t mail us a “forgiveness” check in the mail. He invites us to become a part of His family, to follow His teaching, to join His people. This is what we do when we read our Bible, pray, and gather every Sunday for worship—we are obeying Jesus, and learning together about what it means to follow Him and be His disciple. 

Aha! Maybe you are thinking, I know there would be a catch. If Jesus wants to be our teacher and wants to place a yoke on our necks, why should we come to Him? Shouldn’t we just trust ourselves? How do we know that God won’t exploit us, take advantage of us? Because Jesus shows us His heart: I am gentle and lowly in heart. The puritan Thomas Goodwin points out that this is the only place in the entire Bible where Jesus describes His heart. I don’t know what your conception of God is like, perhaps cold and distant; harsh and calculating; permissive and disinterested? But here we have Jesus Himself explain who He is at the core of His being:

Gentle: not harsh, not brittle; welcoming and warm; the most understanding person you have ever met.

Lowly: not arrogant, not too busy to make time for you, not concerned that you are too unimportant for Him, but humble, kind.

If Jesus is these two things at His heart, then that means His yoke really is easy, really is light. It means that the path He is calling you to really is a path that leads to more rest. Trust Him. Follow him.

Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.

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