Last time I was here many of you were away at Easter People. While you were off enjoying your holiday, or your hard work, or a spiritual break, I was stood up here talking about the disciple Thomas. I finished the service that morning by asking all those here to write down your greatest fears or doubts about your own Christian life. Since I did that, I have been asking the same question to many other Christians, and repeatedly the reply from them is the same. “I am worried that when I get to meet Jesus, I will not have done enough, or been good enough since I became a Christian to make Him happy with me”.
Now I did not read the slips that you placed under the cross at the front here, but I would guess that many of you here have the same worry or fear about your own Christian life. I know there have been many times when I have done.
This seems to be something that Paul was very aware of in his own life especially in his former life as a practicing Jew. Maybe not in the same words, but it obvious from our reading today, that he realised that he was not living the life that God wanted him to live. He wrote in Romans 7:14-15: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” And then again “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” And one more time in verse 19: “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do--this I keep on doing.”
Doesn’t this sound familiar to many of us, and isn’t it one of the main reasons why we worry that we are not good enough Christians to receive the eternal life that is offered?
In Matthew Chapter 11, Jesus is speaking to a people who have been placed under a great burden. For many years they have had Pharisees and Levites telling them all about how they should be living their lives. It wasn’t enough for them to try and keep God’s law, these people had invented their own hedge of laws that they must obey just to make certain that they kept God’s law. The prophet Isaiah had written a couple of hundred years earlier: “Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues God will speak to this people, to whom he said, "This is the resting place, let the weary rest"; and, "This is the place of repose"-- but they would not listen. So then, the word of the LORD to them will become: Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there-- so that they will go and fall backward, be injured and snared and captured. (Isaiah 28:11-13).
To give you an example, the Jewish writing called the Mishnah describes how this hedge works. Or at least how it should have worked. The Old Testament states that the Shema, the great prayer should be recited on a certain day of the year. The Mishnah – the Jewish book of verbal law, goes on to describe exactly when this should be done:
1:1 From what time in the evening may the Shema be recited? From the time when the priests enter [the Temple] to eat of their Heave-offering until the end of the first watch. So says Rabbi. Eliezer. But the Sages say: Until midnight. Rabban Gamaliel says: Until the rise of dawn. His sons once returned [after midnight] from a wedding feast. They said to him, "We have not recited the Shema." He said to them, "If the dawn has not risen ye are [still] bound to recite it. Moreover, wheresoever the Sages prescribe ’Until midnight’ the duty of fulfilment lasts until the rise of dawn." The duty of burning the fat pieces and the members [of the animal offerings] lasts until the rise of dawn; and for all [offerings] that must be consumed "the same day," the duty lasts until the rise of dawn. Why then have the Sages said: Until midnight? To keep man far from transgression.”
In other words, the hedge of laws that were built around the Old Testament law were there to make sure that Jews kept God’s law. The trouble was that they had not had this effect. Instead of doing this, people were left under the burden of thinking that they had even more laws to obey. Is it any wonder that these were the people to whom Jesus called ‘Come to me all you who are weary and burdened’. They were weary and burdened by the law that had been designed to bring them freedom and release. This is why Paul wrote, “what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” He knew the law, both that given by God, and that put in place by man to help prevent people from disobeying God’s law. Yet he also knew that he could not obey all of these laws. Paul was one of those who were wearied and burdened in his attempts to do what God wanted. It did not matter how hard he tried he could not do it.
Of course, we all know the story of how this wearisome burden was lifted from Paul. Of how he was blinded by the light of the risen Christ when he came near to Damascus. That experience was why Paul could go on to write to the Romans “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”
To those of you here today who have this worry or fear about what will happen when you die and face Jesus holding his book of life. To all those who worry whether your name is written in that book. I would ask one question of you first of all – have you experienced this same meeting with the risen Christ? The same Christ who met with Mary at the empty tomb and released her burden of grief. Who met with Peter by the Sea of Galilee and released his burden of guilt; and who met with Paul near Damascus and released him from his burden of condemnation wants to meet with you and I today and release us from all that burdens us. If you have not met Him, then you need to or you will never experience that release and rest.
Sadly, however, many of us have met Christ like this. We have been through that experience of salvation through God’s amazing grace. Yet now, several or many years later, we begin to worry about whether we have done enough to enable us to stand before Christ in heaven. The burden, which Christ lifted off us when we first met Him, is on us again. Or if not the same one, one that is very similar. How did this happen? How did we move from the place where we experienced salvation by grace to the place where we worry whether our works are good enough?
I want to take a look for a few minutes at what happened when we grew up as children, and what happens to parents now as they bring children up. For the first four or five years, children grow up totally dependent upon those around them. To begin with, they cannot do anything unless somebody does it for them. They can’t turn over very well, can’t walk or even crawl, they can’t feed. They are dependent on their parents for everything. This is a picture of what happens to us when we first become Christians. There is nothing that we can do to deserve salvation, no action of ours, even if we were capable of doing it, would help. Instead, all we can do is cry out to God and say ‘forgive me’. Everything else is God’s work and we rely totally on Him to do it.
Then think back to what happened as we grew up, and what happens now as parents help their children grow up. There came a time when we were told if you want this to happen you must first do so and so. Or as I say regularly to Thomas, if you want me to read a story tonight you will first have to tidy all of your toys up. Instead of simply having other people give us everything, we discover that we have to begin to work to get things.
Now transfer that to our spiritual lives. Whilst we may accept that salvation comes through God’s grace alone, we seem to have brought our childhood teaching into our Christian lives by thinking that everything after that must be earned. And so we begin to worry that we have not earned enough after being saved.
Could this be why Jesus began this passage in Matthew’s gospel with the words “"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.” He knew that unless we returned to that childhood state of absolute dependence upon God, we would not be able to take his yolk upon us, we would simply go back and pick up our own.
I want to ask my second question now. Why are you doing what you are doing in your Christian life? It doesn’t matter whether it is witnessing or praying or being a Church steward of anything else. Why are you doing it? Is it because by doing it you are earning your place with God, making doubly certain that your name will continue to be in that book of life? Or are you doing what you are doing because you are allowing Christ to do this through you? Is it is His work or your work you are involved with?
For yes, there is a place for us to work in our Christian lives. The Christian journey is not simply a case of God does everything and we sit back and let Him. Neither does it become a case of us having to fear in case we have not done enough, that is not a part of the yolk Jesus gives to us. I have mentioned what happens in most people’s childhood, sadly, there are a few for whom this does not happen. I am sure you have seen children who are not brought up to realise that they must begin to work to receive things. These children only have to say ‘I want’ and they get it immediately. Am I allowed to say that these are the most spoiled brats imaginable? Often, these are also the children who you find living at home at age thirty or older. Their mum still brings them a cup of tea on a morning, washes their pots up, washes and irons their clothes and everything else.
Just as Jesus does not want us to have the burden of thinking that our work keeps our entry into His presence open. Neither does he want us to think that we do not have anything to do in our Christian lives. After stating that all who are weary and burdened should come to Him for rest, Jesus went on to say, “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."
Take my yoke upon you; this is not a case of us doing work for God. It is simply us allowing God to do His work in and through our lives. This is why the yolk is easy and the burden is light, it is because it is no longer our yolk and our burden. All that we have to do is to be in a position to allow God to do this in our lives.
I say, ‘all that we have to do’, in actual fact, this is something that can take some effort on our part. Our society teaches us that if we want anything in life, we must work hard and go out and get it. As Christians, we have to retrain ourselves to realise that we can no longer live like this. It can be fairly hard work initially to retrain ourselves to realise that the Christian life does not work like this. But once we begin to do so, the difference can be quite amazing. Instead of us going into situations thinking how can I witness in this situation, we go in allowing the Christ in us to reveal Himself. Instead of thinking that we must do certain works, we begin to allow Christ to work in and through us, and as He, through the Holy Spirit has gifted us to do these things, the effects as I have said can be amazing.
And so I come to the third question this morning. The first, if you remember was to ask whether we have experienced a meeting with the risen Christ. The second was to ask whose work we are involved with in our lives. Whether it was our own work or God’s. And the third is to ask whether we are a part of those people who have a fear that when we meet God, we will discover that we have not done enough?
If the answer to this last question is yes, then we can put these fears to rest simply because there is absolutely nothing that we can do that would be enough. God’s grace alone does this. And it is Christ in us who should be doing everything afterwards.
We do not need to be carrying the burden of this worry and fear because we have obeyed and taken His yoke, rather than one of our own making upon us.