Christian Copyright Licensing International (CCLI) | Streaming Licensing # 20105663Worship Guide
The Gospel According to Handel: The Burden of Christmas
Isaiah 40:11 - 40:11
December 25, 2022
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
As we celebrate the fulfillment of God’s promises, we take a close look at the good news of Christmas and explore the two gifts Jesus gives us: The gift of rest and the gift of burden.
View Sermon Transcript
Merry Christmas! I'm so glad to have you here with us again. We gather to celebrate the fulfillment of the promise that the light that we have longed for in the darkness of Advent has finally come. God himself has come into the flesh to make his home in our world and in doing that he is coming through in all the promises that he's made for generations from the beginning of time—promises he made to Adam and Eve in the garden, promises he made to Abraham and Rebecca, Isaac and Sarah, Jacob and Rachel. It’s the promise that he made to Moses and Israel in the wilderness, the promise that he made to Jeremiah, and Isaiah and all the prophets, while Israel was in exile. It's a promise he makes to Elizabeth and Zechariah. It's a promise he makes to Mary and Joseph. It's a promise that he makes to you.
With the coming of the Messiah Jesus at long last, the salvation of the world has come. So with this child comes the promise that every wrong will be made right, every tear will be wiped away, and the world, which is forever tearing apart at the seams, at least it would appear so, will one day be made whole again. With the birth of Jesus, the world will never be the same. It is the event in the history of the world, that all of the other events are judged against and judged accordingly. The news that God has come among us is a cause of celebration. It is the news by which we are not only to remember on this day but all throughout our lives.
This morning, we're concluding our Advent series called, The Gospel According to Handel. We had the great joy and privilege of hosting Handel's Messiah just a few weeks ago. Handel's Messiah has been integral to the story of Advent, the story of Christmas, and the larger story of Jesus, which has been told and celebrated since the middle of the 18th century. Throughout the series, we have been looking at the Scripture texts that comprise the beginning of Handel's Messiah and using them as a framework to reflect on the implications of Advent and Christmas.
This morning, we're going to look at two more passages from Handel's Messiah. I want to use these texts to explore the implications for us—the implications for Christmas and the birth of Christ. We're gonna look at Isaiah 40:11 and Matthew 11:28-30. Let's give our attention to God's word.
11He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
28Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
This is the Word of the Lord. It’s absolutely true, and it’s given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
Our great God and Heavenly Father, as we gather this Christmas Day, would you stir our hearts so that these words—which are given to us to guide and direct us, to sustain us, to give us hope—would do exactly that. Open our eyes to see, you would open our ears to hear, and you would open our hearts that we would know and rest upon the glorious words that you have come. You have come into our world to bring salvation, the salvation that we long for. O Lord, may we behold it this morning. We pray in Christ's name. Amen.
One of the great things about this time of year is seeing people that you don't get to see very often. All the holiday parties, the Christmas parties, the New Year's parties, all the great events leading up to this day, and that will continue on hopefully for the rest of the week, are great excuses to connect with friends or family you haven't seen in a while. Oftentimes what happens when you see them is that after a while, the first thing you do is notice how they might have changed. Of course with kids, this is easy, right? You see a child you haven't seen a while, and you can say, “Oh my gosh! You've gotten so big. I can't believe how much bigger you are since the last time I last saw you!” With adults it's a little bit different. You have to use a little finesse when you address them if you haven't seen them for a while. You say things like, “Wow! You look great. You look like maybe you've been exercising.” That's how I recommend you greet each other if you haven't seen someone in a while.
One greeting that was given a lot, especially if you know this person well, maybe if you're seeing an adult you haven't seen in a while, maybe if you're seeing a parent perhaps you haven't seen or a close friend, a greeting that is meant usually out of love but also out of concern is this: “Wow, you look really tired. Are you OK? You look kind of tired.” If you're like me, I bet you've both offered that word of greeting and also received that word of greeting a time or two. In some ways, it can actually be nice to hear those words because you might be really tired, and a friend or a parent or someone close to you, maybe even a congregant, is simply acknowledging something that you know to be very true. You are, in fact, tired physically and emotionally, so it can be nice to be seen.
But then there are the times when someone says, “Hey, you look really tired,” but you don't think you're tired. You think you're managing life well, and that kind of greeting can come off as some sort of indictment or a little bit of an exposure. So you might respond, “No, I feel fine. I'm good.” Then it goes back to, “OK, how's the weather?” But then you're left wondering, “Do I look tired? Am I tired? Is there something going on that I'm not seeing that the other person who knows me so well is seeing?”
I bring all that up because this passage out of Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew 11, is Jesus' equivalent of saying to his disciples, and saying to the larger group of followers, and really saying to the world, including us, “You look really tired.” That's what Jesus is saying this morning. Some of you who hear these words will be like that first group, to have someone tell you what you already know, that you are tired, it can be really refreshing. It can be completely life giving to be told that. Yet for others who think they’re doing just fine, being told that, “You’re tired,” might come as an offense.
But this is what Jesus says in this passage. He doesn't state it as a fact. He offers it as an invitation. He also leads it to a promise and ultimately, a gift. This is why Christmas is such good news. The Promised One, Jesus, doesn't just receive gifts. That's a story that we normally tell on Christmas. The Three Wise Men came bearing frankincense and gold and myrrh. They give gifts to Jesus.
What I want you to see this morning is that the good news of Christmas is that this King Jesus comes also bearing gifts. He has gifts for you, and I want to look at two of them this morning. I want to explore the two gifts of Christmas: The gift of rest and the gift of burden.
The Gift Of Rest
First, Jesus gives the gift of rest. In Matthew 11:28 he says, “‘Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’” Jesus makes this invitation because he knows the people around him are so desperately in need of rest. It's not just the disciples and his followers, it's everyone, even and perhaps especially those who don't think they need rest. In Jesus' time, this is the Pharisees, the Roman leaders. These are Jesus' enemies, his skeptics. Everyone is invited to enter into this rest. Everyone is invited because everyone needs it.
The Bible talks a lot about rest because this is what it means to be human. At our most basic level, we are creatures who have limits; and therefore, we need rest. Jesus in this passage invites us to find our rest in him. As he does that, his invitation is meant to be both an exposure of our need for rest, but also an acknowledgement for what we all know to be true—that we are tired. All of us, every man, every woman, every child, no matter your background, whether you are a Christian or not, we are all seeking some sort of rest. Christmas is the proclamation: That the rest that you are looking for is here in this child, the savior of the world.
We need this rest because we are physically limited. We are emotionally limited. We are relationally limited. Therefore, we require rest. This is why it's woven into the very structure of the world. God introduces a Sabbath, one day out of seven to rest, so that we might delight in all that God has done. The Sabbath is meant to celebrate with God in his creation, and to celebrate all the gifts that he offers. So all of this is in mind when Jesus says, “‘Come to me…and I will give you rest.’”
Of course the challenge we face is that while this is an invitation given to us by Jesus, it doesn't come very naturally to us. Even though we are tired, even though we face our limits, even though we are seeking some kind of rest, this kind of rest is not natural to us because the rest that we often seek and the rest that we try to produce is a rest where we rest on our own accomplishments. We rest in our ability to create a world for ourselves that is secure and safe and somehow manageable. In other words, we rest in our own power. We rest in our own work. But to rest in Jesus means that we do not find rest in ourselves. To rest in Jesus means that we find ourselves in a story that is much bigger than ourselves, much bigger than our accomplishments, much bigger than our failures, much bigger than our hopes and our fears. To take Jesus' invitation to rest in him means that we rest not because of what we do, not because of what we've accomplished in a week, or in a month, or this year. We rest not because our email inbox is somehow at zero, which is an impossibility anyway, we rest because the deeper reality of the world is that Jesus, the son, is inviting you into his life by offering his life for your sake, so that you can have real rest.
There's something so beautiful about this invitation in verse 28. It's the assumption that we are tired. It's the knowledge that Jesus knows that we are tired because Jesus doesn't say, “Come to me all who are eventually going to need a break.” It's not, “Come to me when you're eventually going to need a breather.” No it's, “Come to me all who are already and currently laboring and are heavy laden. All who are weighed down by the reality of the world and their place in it, all who are weary and broken by the burdens of guilt and shame, all who are living under the crushing pressure of expectations that are not your own.” To everyone, Jesus says, “I am the Savior of the world. I am the shepherd of the sheep. I know the ones I call. I know the ones I guide, and I know they need rest. I know you are weak. I know you have limits. I know you're exhausted. I know you are overwhelmed. Come to me.”
Listen again to Isaiah 40:11, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” This is a shepherd who is offering rest. I want you to hear this invitation to rest. I want you to realize that what is offered here is not an invitation to retreat from God. It is not an invitation to run and find your own space and collect yourself, to disconnect for a few days at Christmas only to reemerge with new goals and a new vision for your life in the new year. That's not what this rest is. No, the invitation is for deeper communion with him with the very one who calls you. This is important because when we are tired, when we are overwhelmed, when we are in deep need of rest, so often our natural inclination is to retreat. It is self-preservation. The first way we retreat is to retreat from God.
This instinct is wrong, and it's dangerous because we can't find rest in ourselves. To look inward in order to find rest and peace only creates more exhaustion and more anxiety because it's an impossible task. Jesus comes to rescue you from the unbearable and exhausting burden of the world that you are trying so hard to create, the world that you are trying so hard to hold up and to prop up the burdens of self-creation, self-invention, self-preservation, the unbearable burden of keeping it all together. That's what Jesus is coming to rescue you from. It's an impossible task to put yourself at the center of the universe. And to do so means that it will eventually crush you. One of the great challenges we face because we find ourselves in the late modern age is that this is where we are told exactly where we ought to be. We are told that we all ought to be at the center of our own world, the center of our own universe. We are told that we are enough. We are the center of our own story. It's so common that it sounds so natural. It sounds so healthy and good. But it's just not true. It doesn't lead to life and flourishing. It actually leads to bondage and to death.
Take your clue from Christmas. The world remarkably slows down. It slows way down for this event in history. It's not the warm sentimentality of a Hallmark movie or the Netflix Christmas movies that it slows down for. It slows down because Jesus' birth is at the center of the story of the world. And now here stands Jesus, inviting and welcoming rest, offering you the gift of rest. The rest that only he can offer, rest that only he can give. But his rest is an invitation to communion, to find your shelter, your identity, your hope, not in yourself, but in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is why the Church throughout her history has been at its most effective, has been its strongest, and it’s most welcoming to its neighbors, when the Christians have humbly acknowledged their weakness and their need of rest. Because remember, it's not just you who is tired. You have to remember that your neighbors are tired too. The people who selectively post their most serene moments on Instagram, they're tired too. The people who annoy you most on the subway, they're tired too. Everyone who sent you a Christmas card this year, they're tired too. Especially the people who haven't sent their Christmas cards out, they're tired too. On Christmas morning, we remember and celebrate the very thing we need is given to us as a gift—a Savior, gentle and lowly, who will go from a manger to a cross to a grave to ultimately the right hand of God. Jesus offers you rest.
The Gift of Burden
Jesus not only offers you rest, but he also gives us the gift of a burden. The interesting thing about this passage in Matthew 11 is that right after Jesus invites us to rest and offers us the gift of rest, he then says, “‘Take my yoke upon you…For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’” He's offering the gift of rest, but then he's also giving us a burden, a yoke.
I don't know if you've ever been given a Christmas gift that felt more like a burden than a gift. I have. Christmas 1984. Go back with me if you will to the ghosts of Christmas past. Nine year old Chris wanted an Atari. He really wanted an Atari, but his parents, Jim and Karen, decided to get him what we'll call a computer. It wasn't a computer. If you're alive back then It was. It was more like a keyboard that you plugged into what we'll call a TV. It would be unrecognizable as a TV to anyone today, but these computers required a whole programming language. You had to enter code. I didn't know code, so my parents also very warmly and graciously gave me the gift of computer classes on Saturday mornings at RadioShack for several Saturdays in a row where I had to learn computer programming with a bunch of 30 and 40 year old and 50 year old people. It felt like a burden. I would totally do the same thing to my children, and I've done the modern day equivalent, of course, but as a nine year old, it felt like quite a burden.
That to me, at least, is what it sounds like what Jesus is doing here. He's giving us a gift—a gift of rest—and saying also, here is this gift of a yoke, which is a harness, a wooden harness you put on an animal to plow fields. They say, “Here, take this gift.” If you're really tired, Jesus offering you a yoke is the last thing you think you need, especially when what is making you most exhausted is the chaos of the world. And this, after all, is an exhausting time to live.
But here's the point. You're already carrying a very heavy and burdensome yoke—a looming recession, new geopolitical battles are always emerging. It's an exhausting time to live in the modern age. Christmas calls us not to retreat, but to move into the world just like Jesus does on this Christmas morning. He takes on flesh and he moves into the neighborhood. We too are called to love our neighbor and not to be overwhelmed by the exhausting realities of the world around us.
In the same way when we are exhausted, we tend to retreat from God. The other thing we tend to do is retreat from the world. We retreat from our neighbors because it just gets to be too much. There's too much unknown, too much danger, too much to risk in loving our neighbors. But Jesus here in offering this gift of his yoke is not telling us to escape, in fact, he's actually promising us to equip us for our labors. Jesus is saying once again, “Follow me. Learn for me. Keep your eyes on me.” He's promising his presence. He's promising to remove from you the impossibly heavy yoke that you are carrying that weighs you down, and he is giving you his light and his easy yoke, his light and beautiful burden.
The one who loves you and knows you now says, “Come, follow me. I will lead you out into the world.” Jesus in the gentle one. Jesus is the one who sees the lowly in heart. Jesus, the King and ruler of the cosmos, promises his presence. He promises you his life as we live and as we serve and as we follow him.
The rest that Jesus offers, the rest that he has secured allows us to love God and it also allows us to love our neighbors. This is how we look to our future together, and we start another calendar year, not exactly knowing what lies ahead. Yet here this morning, we find our joy and refreshment in Jesus by restructuring our lives, our priorities, our energies, so that we can dwell with him and seek his rest. As we do, he promises to equip us to move out into the world to offer that same rest to our neighbors. In your exhaustion, in your weariness, do not retreat from God. Do not retreat from your neighbor, but seek Jesus. It's his rescue we're looking for. It's his burden you need. He offers it to you. He offers us these gifts because he loves us.
We're concluding this series around Handel's Messiah. One of the interesting things that occurred just a few weeks ago as we celebrated Handel's Messiah here on a Saturday evening, was the fact that if you were to arrive here and come up on 63rd St. before the concert, you would have seen just a glimpse of the chaos of the world. There was a political event in the building next to us and with that brought police and barricades and protesters. As I walked up 63rd St to attend the concert, I was kind of overwhelmed with sadness and grief because here it was, as we're here to celebrate the Christmas in the coming Messiah, all around it was chaos and anger. It was a microcosm of the world, the modern age in which we live. And yet, we all gathered here, those of us who were here. We filled up this sanctuary, and we listened to Handel's Messiah, the texts that Charles Jennens put together that George Frideric Handel then put to beautiful music, and we listened to these amazing musicians and these vocalists perform and preach us the gospel in such a lovely way.
As the world around us entered into chaos, what we were really saying was, “Don't mind us. We're just going to make beautiful music. We're just going to proclaim the gospel to ourselves and to the world.” What we were doing that night was living out what we've just been talking about. We are entering into the rest that is promised to us in Jesus. We are taking upon us his light and easy burden, laying down our heavy burdens, and taking upon his easy yoke, so that we would move out into the world, move out into the chaos of the world in which we live with this message: Christ has come and the world will never be the same. We do the very same thing when we gather at this table. We come and we are fed by Jesus. We enter into his rest. He feeds us so that we might find our rest in him. And yet in this bread and in this cup is the promise that he puts his light and easy burden upon us and he equips us so that we can take this message of Christmas to the world around us. There's no need to retreat from God or from our neighbor because we have a shepherd, we have a king, who equips us who loves us and gives us the gift of his rest and his burden.
Our great God and Heavenly Father, we thank you and praise you that on this day that we celebrate the gift of your coming. You offer us these gifts of rest and this gift of a light and easy yoke. God, I pray that we would be a people who know how to receive these gifts, that we would find our rest not in ourselves but in you, that we would unload our heavy burdens that take upon us your light and easy burden, and we would find our life and our hope and our joy in you. O would you make that so this Christmas morning. All by the power of your spirit we pray in Jesus' name. Amen.