November 30, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHAT ARE YOU NOT DOING FOR CHRISTMAS? BURDENS
Genesis 2:1-3, Matthew 11:28-30
You’re probably wondering why I brought my backpack to church this morning. It’s because I want you to let you in on something. This is what I carry around with me wherever I go. This is heavy by the way. I’d love to set it down. Because it is filled with my burdens.
This one is my work here at church. This would be a heavy one to carry all by itself even if there weren’t any others. It’s a big responsibility to be a pastor. My mind is always thinking about how things are going and how things could be going better.
Then I carry this financial burden. There are all these bills that keep appearing in our mailbox that need to be paid. And there will be future bills. I’m hoping Helen and I will live long lives. Will our money last that long?
My three children are part of my burden. Even though only one is still at home, I worry about all three all the time. Something bad might happen to them. They might make bad choices. I have to be able to control my children at all times and the older they get the harder that is.
Then I have a marriage. I have a wife who also needs to be controlled, and the older she gets the harder that is.
I have a reputation. I have to worry about what other people think of me. How am I doing? How’s this sermon going? Do you like it so far?
There is the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen so I need to worry about all the bad things that might possibly happen. That way if one of those bad things really does happen, it won’t catch me by surprise.
And of course the past is a heavy burden, too. There’s guilt and regret, all the things I would do differently if I had them to do over again, but it’s too late for that.
These are just a few of the burdens I carry around constantly. 24 / 7 / 365. And here’s the strange part. When Christmas approaches, that most wonderful time of the year, that time that is so joyful and carefree and peaceful, you would think my burdens would get lighter. But it’s just the opposite! They get heavier. I have more demands to meet, more things to do, more people to be with.
I actually got a phone call the other day from a woman who was asking if I could attend a Christmas event at her house on Christmas Day. December 25! What was she thinking? As if I don’t get at least one day off. One day of rest and peace and escape. She made me feel guilty about it, but I just had to level with her. I said, “No, I’m sorry Mom, but it’s just not going to happen this year.”
As you can see, I carry a heavy burden. And as long as I am carrying all this around everywhere I go it means that I will always be preoccupied with myself. It will always be all about me. I will never be fully present to God, or to life, or to people.
And somehow, I don’t think it’s just me. I look into the faces of other people when they think nobody is looking and I see the telltale signs. Worried eyes, furrowed brows, anxious faces. They are carrying a burden, too.
I think it’s universal. It’s not just me. It’s not just you. We all carry burdens that are heavy and that rob from us the joy of life. A burden is whatever we carry that we were not designed by God to carry. A burden is what we think we have to carry because we think nobody else will. Because we are living our lives as if there were no God.
Burdens are bad news. But here is the good news. There is a God. And here is more good news. God came to this earth and showed us what an unburdened life looks like. Jesus lived a life of peace and joy. Not that he didn’t have responsibilities. He had huge responsibilities. But somehow he was so connected to God that these responsibilities weren’t heavy for him. He said the strangest things: “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you . . . Let not your hearts be troubled . . . I have told you these things that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be complete.”
When he said these things, his disciples didn’t answer, “What are you talking about, Jesus? We see you all the time. You’re just as stressed out and wound up and burdened down as we are!” They didn’t say that. Because that wasn’t true. They had lived with him for three years. They watched, they saw, they knew.
Dallas Willard asked, “If you could choose one word to describe Jesus, what would that word be?” Interesting question. How would you answer? What word would you choose? The word Dallas Willard chose was “relaxed”. Jesus was relaxed. In other words, Jesus lived without the burden that weighs so heavily on the rest of us.
But Jesus could see the burdens everyone else was carrying around. And it bothered him. He wanted to do something about it. He wanted to set people free. So one day he said this:
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.
What if we took Jesus up on his offer? We’re starting a series today called, “What are you not doing for Christmas?” Instead of trying to do more and more, what are we not doing? How about this? How about giving up our burdens?
You might want to think about what your burdens are — it might be health, it might be finances, it might be a relationship, it might be a worry. What does the unburdened life look like for you? What if we made a decision for this Advent season? “What I’m not going to do for Christmas is to carry around this stupid burden that makes my life miserable all the time!”
There is a picture of the unburdened life that runs through the Bible. In fact it is introduced at the very beginning of the Bible. God worked six days to create everything there is and on the seventh day God rested. But it’s not just a day of rest. It’s not just a day off. It’s much more than that.
Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their
vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy (Genesis 2:1-3).
Here’s a question for you. Why should God need rest? I thought God had infinite power. Why would God get tired? Haven’t you thought it strange that God needs to take a day off? That God is worn out and needs to recover from all that hard work?
This was written a long time ago which makes it hard for us to understand it as it was originally understood, but here’s the best current thinking. God resting is God sitting in his temple in heaven. God resting is like a king on the throne or a president in the Oval Office. You don’t sit there to take a nap, you sit there to go to work. The work is over in the sense that the six days of creation have ended, but the work is just beginning in the sense that the real work of everyday life can now begin. So the seventh day is not a vacation day. The seventh day is the reason for the first six days. It’s what they were all leading up to.
If you are familiar with the creation story in Genesis 1, you are familiar with the refrain, “And there was evening and there was morning, one day . . . a second day . . . a third day”, and so on. This is the marker to signify that one day is ending and a new day is beginning. But it never says, “And there was evening and there was morning, a seventh day.” It never says that. That verse is not in the Bible. Because the seventh day was never intended to end. The seventh day is the day when God rests on his throne. To quote Robert Browning, the seventh day is when, “God is in his heaven [and] all’s right with the world.” Or to quote Jesus, the seventh day is when God’s kingdom has come and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven.
The seventh day was never supposed to end but it did end. When it ended it wasn’t the eighth day that ended it. It was ended not by another day but by sin. And ever since sin was introduced into God’s perfect creation, we have been carrying the burden. The seventh day of paradise is over. The eighth day of hard work and heavy burdens is underway. But God wants us to know that the seventh day is coming back. So God gave us a gift. It’s called the Sabbath. It’s a reminder of what we have to look forward to. It’s a foretaste so we can experience life as it was meant to be, right now.
God says, “One day a week, don’t do any work. One day a week, don’t have an agenda. One day a week, don’t have a to-do list. One day a week, put down your burden and it will remind you of something important: There is a God and it is not you.”
Jesus was big on the Sabbath. He talked about it all the time. He was always getting into trouble over it. He was always having to set the religious leaders straight about what it meant. The Sabbath was not a set of rules to prove how holy you are. The Sabbath was the promise of an unburdened life under the care and watch and love and power of God.
Here’s the thing about Jesus — wherever he was, it was Sabbath. It could be Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday. Every day, every moment, was Sabbath for Jesus. It was impossible for him to violate the Sabbath because he was the Sabbath! He was life unburdened by sin and death and all the weight we carry around. That’s why he said, “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).
The Lord of the Sabbath is extending an invitation to all of us. Not to one more Christmas party. Not to add some new weight to the burden you are already carrying around. Not even to try real hard for once this year to not be a Scrooge. The invitation is to experience Sabbath. Schedule some time. Treat yourself. Be good to yourself. You weren’t meant to carry all those stupid burdens around all the time. Give them to God. They aren’t heavy for God. God has many Christmas gifts for you. One of the best is Sabbath.
I know we tend to associate that word, Sabbath with a particular day of the week, whether Saturday or Sunday. But Sabbath can be any day. It can be every day. It can be moments during any day. But what I am suggesting in this busy time of the year is that we be intentional about this. That we carve some specific time out of our busy schedules. It might be a whole day. It might be 30 minutes. But you need to be the one to schedule that time and to hold to it, and when the time comes, to set down all those burdens.
It’s interesting that the Bible that has so much to say about the Sabbath has hardly anything to say about what we are supposed to do on the Sabbath. It tells us in great detail what we are not supposed to do. Orthodox Jews have all this memorized. There are rules upon rules upon rules. Christians tend to be a little more casual. We boil it down two words: “Don’t work.” So we know what we’re not supposed to do. But what are we supposed to do on the Sabbath?
I’m reading a book about a pastor who had to take some time away from her church to deal with some unexpected news. She had cancer. She no longer has cancer. Her doctor tells her she is now cancer-free. She has every probability of living a long life. But she didn’t know that at the beginning. She couldn’t possibly have known that. She was preparing for her life to be over.
She said something that hit me. She said that after all her years of teaching others about Sabbath, this was the first time she had really experienced Sabbath herself. She didn’t work. She couldn’t work. So she met the negative requirement of Sabbath. But what did she do? Well, she doesn’t say in the book. So I have to guess.
I’m guessing she had some long talks with God. She let God be God. She stopped trying to be in control of everything. She wasn’t in control and she made peace with that. She realized it was not all about her. It was all about God. It was all about God’s love. I’m guessing that her being able to enter into Sabbath with her Creator at this extremely stressful time was part of her healing.
So what are you not doing this Christmas? Here’s an idea. Why don’t you try not carrying this around?
As we prepare now to close with prayer, I invite you to think about whatever burdens are weighing heavily on you right now. Whatever burdens are crushing the spirit and the life right out of you and keeping you ungrateful or selfish. You might want to put your palms up like this, as a way of saying with your body, “Okay God, I’m giving you these burdens. I don’t want to carry them anymore. When I carry them, they do bad things to my soul and my heart and my spirit and my relationships. God, in this moment I listen to the One who said, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.'”
God, we give you not our strengths, not our achievements, not our glittering images, but our burdens, our smallness, our failure, our sin. Give rest for our souls. This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.