July 9, 2017
“Rest in Christ”
We're just coming off of a holiday weekend, and I hope you've gotten, or will soon get, some vacation time this summer. Maybe you'll be traveling, like we will, to go see family. Maybe you'll take the kids sight-seeing. Or maybe you have something even bigger and grander planned. Or maybe you'll just opt for a “stay-cation”. Of course, many go away to see new places and things and participate in exciting activities. But another reason we take vacations is to take a break, right? To get some rest.
Even the secular world seems to understand the need humans have for rest. But the pattern was already set in the first week – when after 6 days of work God rested on the seventh. If even God can rest from his work, then certainly we his creatures ought to, from time to time. He designed our bodies to need a certain amount of sleep to function. He set aside and prescribed certain times and days for the Old Testament people to rest – even a once-every-50-years “year of jubilee”. And all of this is a gift, as Christ teaches, man wasn't made for the Sabbath. The Sabbath was made for man.
Here in Matthew 11, Jesus offers a different kind of rest, “rest for your souls”. Let's explore what our Lord means by this gracious offer of rest.
Before we get to the rest Christ offers, take note of what he says in the first part of this passage. One, that God hides wisdom from the wise and gives it to children. This is God's gracious will. It fits with so many other passages of Scripture in which God does exactly opposite of what the world expects. The world expects the wise to be those who have studied and learned, who are well-read and well-pedigreed, with alphabets following their names and pontificating from ivory towers of expertise. But the wisdom of God is found in the faith of a child that sings, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” One seems to have it all, but knows nothing. The other seems a credulous fool, but is wiser than the wise of this world. We will come back to this.
And secondly, that everything Christ gives, he receives from God, and gives or reveals to those he chooses. This shows us that there are those things, those truths, which we humans cannot access on our own. No matter how much we study creation and ponder it, no matter how well we understand the mathematics and know the science, there still stands apart from it all – Divine Revelation. That which we cannot know or see or believe, but what must be revealed to us by the one to whom it belongs.
As the catechism reminds us, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him...” so we confess that without what Christ gives us, shows us, tells us... we are lost. We know nothing, we have nothing. It's all gift. Which leads us to his gracious offer of rest:
A rest that is given, not earned.
In this world, you have to earn your living, but also your rest. You only get so many days off. You get so much vacation, or whatever the benefits of your contract, and that's it. Sometimes you can cash out the unused portion at the end – but only what you have earned, what you are due, what you deserve.
Well if scripture speaks in terms of wages, we ought to tremble in fear of what wages we have earned. The wages of sin is death. This is the paycheck that comes due for those who turn from God and his law. This is what we would deserve if God's economy operated purely on justice, and not mercy. A man reaps what he sows. Without Christ, our just deserved would be punishment, wrath, and a casting away from God's presence forever. But rather than cast us out, Jesus says, “come to me...” Rather than giving us what is due, he gives us according to his grace.
Jesus doesn't say here, “Come to me, work for me, and I will give you the rest you earn. When you're down plowing the fields, if you've done enough, worked hard enough, then you'll get your pay.” Far from it. He's offering something for free. He's giving, and that is what a gift is – without cost. Here he speaks of this gracious gift in terms of rest. Rest for the weary. Rest for those carrying heavy burdens. Rest that consists of an easy burden and a light yoke – rest that comes only from him.
For his part, he takes the heavy yoke of the cross. He bears on his shoulders the tiresomeness of a world of sinners, the burden of all our guilt and shame. He works – his whole life – carrying the mantle for all of us who labor under the law to no avail. But Jesus did it. He fulfilled the law and then paid the debt. A perfect life and a sufficient death. His work brings us rest. His labor brings us rewards. His earnings – our paycheck.
Rest from good works.
And so the rest he brings is a rest from trying to do it ourselves. Not that we could, but so many would try. It is a lie of the devil that we could earn our salvation, or even contribute to it. That's what the reformation was ultimately about – can man cooperate with God toward his salvation? Rome said yes, we must! Luther (and Scripture) say no, we can't. And we ought not think we can. This is a giant hamster wheel that gets us nowhere fast. It either creates in us a false sense of pride, that our good works are worth something to God... or it leaves us in a place of despair, knowing that we can't work our way to heaven (but obscuring Christ from our eyes). Rather... Christ has done the work for us. You can rest in him!
This doesn't mean that the Christian does no good works. In Christ, we want to, we strive to, and with the help of the Spirit we grow into the good works he has prepared in advance for us to do. But in Christ, the burden is light and the yoke is easy. The good works we do spring from faith and are no drudgery. And though they are of no value for our salvation, they serve our neighbor in love. The labor of salvation is done, but the work of expressing faith continues.
Rest for the conscience.
Related to the rest he gives when it comes to the treadmill of good works, is a rest for the troubled conscience. This rest, this peace, sets us at ease knowing that in him even our deepest darkest sins are nothing. That Christ's atoning sacrifice on the cross is sufficient. That we are baptized into Christ – and that's not about the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.
What this rest is NOT.
The rest that Christ gives, is not, however, a promise of a trouble-free life. It's not a get-out-of-suffering-for-free card. It doesn't mean we can or should be lazy. It doesn't mean that our earthly lives will be peaceful, calm or restful. It doesn't mean we can expect no persecution – quite on the contrary, the world will hate us on account of him. It doesn't mean that our enemies – devil, world, and sinful flesh – will just quit bothering us now that we are in Christ. If anything, they trouble us even more. The world is a hostile place, with no rest for the weary, especially the weary Christian. It is a valley of the shadow of death. But in it, we are not alone. And from it, there is an escape, a final hope, a promised rest.
Perhaps the most expansive fulfillment of this promised rest in Christ comes at the last – when we enjoy the rest in peace that comes at death, and in the mansions of heaven. Our hope in Christ is not only for this world, for this life, but we look to the horizon, and see life with him beyond. I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
Jesus made many promises of this, from his words of grace to the thief on the cross: “today you will be with me in paradise”, to his words to the sheep in the judgment of the sheep and the goats, “enter into your rest”, to his words here in Matthew 11, “come unto me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
In your hymnal, you have of course the various services we use here in church – Divine Services, Matins, even Vespers and Evening Prayer. But there is also a service called “Compline – Prayer at the Close of the Day”. It's meant as a sort of expanded bedtime prayer for God's people. We used this service every night with the youth at our recent conference in San Antonio. And one of the prayers it includes, well let me share it with you now. And let my words here conclude with these words that ask for the rest that comes only in Christ. We pray:
“O Lord, support us all the day long of this troubled life, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes and the busy world is hushed, the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then, Lord, in Your mercy grant us a safe lodging and a holy rest and peace at the last; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.” Amen.