Several years ago, it came time for me to renew my Driver's License. I went to the Department of Motor Vehicles in Alabama for that wonderful experience. After filling out the paperwork, an agent asked if anything had changed since my last license. Vanity took hold of my very being. "Well, I have lost some weight since the last license. I hope that you will note that change." Without comment, she continued to study my paperwork, then looked up at me, then looked back at the form. Finally, she said, "You say here that you have brown hair. Honey, I don't think that you can get away with that anymore. What if you were stopped and had to show your ID? It needs to match your look. Your appearance needs to match your ID." So, much to my chagrin, my new license said that I had gray hair - until I moved to Georgia and saw that we don't put hair color on our licenses here!
"Your appearance needs to match your ID." Those words stuck with me. Let's think about them for a few minutes today.
The eleventh chapter of Matthew is a story about a question of identity and appearance. The question is offered in verse 3 by John the Baptist who sent his disciples to Jesus and asked, "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" (Matthew 11:3, NRSV) That is an interesting question, isn't it? Remember that this is the same John the Baptist we read about in John 1:29 and following:
The next day he (John) saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel." And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and testified that this is the Son of God." (John 1:29-34, NRSV)
John was clear about the identity of Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. The descriptions are lofty - "Lamb of God," "a man who ranks ahead of me," and best of all, "the Son of God." Now that John is in prison he begins to wonder if Jesus really is "the one who is to come" or should he "wait for another?" (Matthew 11:3, NRSV) What was the problem? Jesus' appearance did not match his ID. John was wanting a powerful Messiah to dispense judgment and establish justice. After all, that had been the focus of John's preaching. I am guessing that every day John sat in that awful jail, he wondered about the power of Jesus. Would Jesus come to save him? Did he have the power to do so, or was he not really who he said he was? His appearance as a non-violent teacher of peace did not match the ID John had in his mind.
The eleventh chapter of Matthew is a story about identity and appearance. It begins with John's question, but quickly moves to an answer by Jesus in the next two verses:
Jesus answered them, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. (Matthew 11:4-5, NRSV)
Jesus was teaching John that his appearance, "what you hear and see," actually did match his ID as the Son of God. The images that he used in his answer remind us of the great prophecies from Isaiah that tell of the coming of a Messiah. (See Isaiah 29:18-19; 35:5-6; 61:1) Jesus was living out the description of the Messiah who was to come. The problem is that he was not living up to the expectation that John had for the Messiah. We often make the same mistake that John made, don't we? We want Jesus to act according to our expectations, and we grow disappointed when Jesus chooses to be our Lord instead of our puppet.
The rest of Chapter 11 develops this answer of Jesus. First, Jesus describes the ministry of John, and then compares his own ministry to that of John in vs. 16 through 19 of our text. This comparison acknowledges that most people did not understand the ministry of Jesus. Our text then moves to another section about identity as Jesus affirms the only one who truly knows his identity is God. "All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." (Matthew 11:27, NRSV)
The movement of this great chapter now brings us to the climactic and beloved passage that concludes the chapter:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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." (Matthew 11:28-30, NRSV)
We often hear the beauty and comfort of these words and miss their connection to the rest of the chapter. Think of these words as one of the beautiful diamonds of the Gospels, then see Chapter Eleven as the setting that holds the diamond in place. The chapter was about identity and appearance. John wondered if Jesus' appearance really matched is identity. In these climactic words that end the chapter, Jesus is giving the answer. He is describing what we can expect from Jesus, as his identity and his appearance are revealed in his actions.
What does this mean for us? These final words tell us two things about Jesus that are critical for us to know. These things are at the core of his identity and they are always revealed in the appearance of Jesus. What are they? As I ask this, I remember a dear church member years ago who offered a critique of my preaching. She said, "You are good about telling us what we are supposed to do for God. I need you to tell us more about what God does for us." I have remembered that good advice ever since. These final words to Chapter 11 tell us what God does for us through Jesus Christ.
God welcomes us! Do you hear the invitation from Jesus? "Come to me, all..." I picture the open arms of our Savior reaching out to hug and gather in everyone. Those who are invited are not the powerful and successful. Instead this invitation is for those who are "weary and carrying heavy burdens." We are all the invited ones today as we continue to struggle with the exile experience of our journey with the coronavirus. In a time when social distancing tells us to keep six feet away, there is this beautiful picture of Jesus reaching out to give us a big hug and to welcome us into his arms. For our weariness, Jesus offers rest. I need that picture of Jesus right now. Don't you?
God guides us! We should never assume that the welcoming invitation of Jesus is intended for us to rest and do nothing. The invitation of Jesus was always to "Follow me." The One who welcomes us is also the One who guides us. Another picture forms in our minds as Jesus the Master Artist paints it. The picture is of a yoke. This wooden piece of equipment that joins together two animals so that they may work together is just the right picture. The goal is to learn from Jesus. It is in this learning that we are guided to life filled with abundance. To make this happen, we do give up something of our own agenda and choose to be yoked to Jesus. But the promise is wonderful. This "yoke is easy and the burden is light." We learn from Jesus that the greatest freedom comes when we are yoked. We learn from the Master who teaches us about life.
A Sunday School teacher shared this text with her young pupils, "My yoke is easy. Who can tell me what a yoke is?" she asked. A boy raised his hand and said, "A yoke is something they put on the necks of animals." Then the teacher asked, "What is the yoke God puts on us?" A quiet little girl raised her hand. "It is God putting His arms around our necks."
In these frightening days of a global pandemic, we need to be reminded of what God does for us. The message is very simple. In our pain, weariness, anger, fear, and anxiety, God welcomes us and promises to give us rest. In our confusion, despair, impatience, and distraction, God guides us and teaches us the way of life. This good news does not take our struggles away. But we can find hope in the fact that the arms of Almighty God are lovingly placed around our necks.
"Your appearance needs to match your ID," she said to me. "Yes, it does," Jesus answers. Because of the answer that Jesus gave in his life, death, and resurrection, we can rejoice by saying, "He is the one who is to come. We don't need to wait for another." May God give you rest for your soul today.
Would you pray with me, please?
We are hurting these days, dear God, so please welcome us into your arms of love and give us rest. We need to know the way forward in our lives and in our world, so please help us to learn from you as we take your yoke upon us. We pray these things in the name of Jesus, Amen.