Weekly Sermon (9)

Sermon – July 9, 2023

…lessons from a ‘yoke’

July 9, 2023

Scriptures: Song of Solomon 2:8-13, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus reached the crest of the hill first and sat down on a large smooth stone.  He watched as crowds streamed across the fields below him on their way up to hear him teach.  A few of his disciples were already up top with him, however others of them were down below as well, carefully making their way closer up the steep hillside. Looking over the gathering crowd, Jesus’ heart was moved with pity for them. Of late his messages had taken on a sharper tone as the urgency of his teachings increased.  Pressure was quickly building against him from those opposed to him, and as a result his calls for increased commitment and diligence had caught many of his followers off guard, even discouraging some who felt his style of preaching was becoming just a bit too radical and openly confrontational.

Jesus knew he was asking a lot, but he also knew that only in complete surrender over to the ways of God would his followers be able to live into the experience of true freedom he so wanted for them…that same freedom he knew as a result of his relationship with the Father.  But he also appreciated that what he was asking was not that easy or simple, and that those who chose to follow after his teachings would surely experience resistance and opposition. He knew that the great burden they already experienced under the weight of Roman occupation, and the rigid interpretations of the Torah by the Temple Authorities distancing them from the unconditional love of God, would only feel like it was only getting worse if they truly walked in the ways he was teaching.

There was just no way to make the call less laborious, no way to make it seem easier other than by continuing to encourage his followers to truly let go, to surrender to the possibility that perhaps God was in fact larger than their limited view and understanding of him…that perhaps God’s love was far greater than they had previously imagined and that in fact God truly did care for them, even down to including the smallest details of their lives.  But…he also knew that if they would just trust in him and live into the fullness of the promises he was offering to them, that life would blossom before them, and they would be filled to overflowing with a deep-seated peace and joy they had never known before…if only they would just trust in him…

And as he looked over the crowd below him he noticed a farmer far off in the distance toiling away in the hot sun, plowing his fields with his team of oxen, and it brought to mind memories of his childhood working alongside his father in his woodshop…and in particular of an incident that taught him so much about his father, his God, and about life itself. 

And as he reflected on that story from his childhood, he realized that the lessons he learned from it might perhaps inspire the crowd around him, helping them to grasp the deeper meanings behind what he was trying to get across to them…

And as he reminisced, he remembered the unexpected knock on the door that warm spring evening so many long years before.  As it was long past dusk and usually by then folks were at home resting from the labors of the day and not prone to going out visiting with the neighbors, Joseph seemed surprised as he looked over at Mary and rose to answer the door.  Opening the door Joseph saw that his visitor was Nathaniel whose farm was a short distance down the road.  Nathaniel was young and strong, and had inherited the farm after his father had taken ill suddenly and passed on.  Joseph knew him to be a good and honest hard working man, but also because Nathaniel’s son Benjamin was the same age as his own son, and the two boys had been best friends since they were very young, often playing together in the dry creek bed down behind Nathaniel’s farm.

‘What can I do for you’, Joseph asked as he motioned for Nathaniel to enter the room.  But Nathaniel seemed upset and declined the invitation instead blurting out, ‘Joseph, I know you are a good and honest man, but I have a real problem with the yoke you gave to me yesterday.  It was not quite the right size and there are cracks in the back near to the hitching ring that look as though they are close to breaking apart!’

Surprised at his neighbor’s assertion but anxious to help him rectify the problem, Joseph did not tell Nathaniel that both he and his wife Mary had actually been away for the past week visiting Mary’s cousin Elizabeth over in the hill country.  There was no way that the work his neighbor was referring to was his own, but a quick glance over at his son Jesus, who was trying desperately to hide in the corner, told Joseph that his son had something to do with the reason behind his neighbor’s distress.  Not wanting to embarrass his son and still anxious to help Nathaniel, Joseph asked him, ‘Did you bring the yoke over so I might have a look at it?’

‘Actually I brought both of my oxen still locked into it just to show you how ill-fitting it is and to show you the defects in the wood’, said Nathaniel.  ‘They are standing outside and if you have a lantern I can show you the problems right now.  I was forced to quit plowing early today because the one ox was developing chafe marks on his shoulders and I knew that if I continued on it would get so bad that I would not be able to plow for a week or more until it healed.  It is critical that I get the large field plowed right away or I will miss the spring rains due in next week.’

Seeing that his neighbor was deeply troubled, Joseph went over and picked up a lantern and after lighting it said to his son, ‘Jesus, perhaps you can come with us and hold the light while we look at Nathaniel’s oxen and his yoke.’  And moving towards the door he grabbed his measuring tools and motioned for Nathaniel to lead the way out into the darkness.  As they walked out into the side yard Nathaniel spoke up saying, ‘I know you are a fine woodworker Joseph, and I truly appreciate the low price you gave me for this yoke, but I just can’t understand how this could have happened. My father always said you were a master carpenter and the one who could make the finest yokes in Judea, what happened with this one?’

Still not wanting to expose or embarrass his son, and still unsure of exactly what had happened, Joseph said simply, ‘Everyone makes a mistake once in a while Nathaniel, what is important is that we fix it right away for you and get you back out into that field as soon as possible.’ In truth Joseph did have the reputation of making the best and most well-fitted yokes in the whole region, having come from a long line of wood workers going back many generations to those who first worked alongside of the master carpenters who had worked constructing the Temple of Solomon from the majestic cedars of Lebanon.

  And drawing near to the two oxen, Joseph saw immediately that the measurements had somehow been reversed left to right, and that the yoke was far too small to fit Nathaniel’s oxen correctly.  By placing them too close together, the oxen were actually working against each other as they pulled the plow, resulting in very inefficient work and leading to the severe chafing on the inside shoulder of the ox on the left.  Motioning Jesus to bring the lantern closer he stepped between the two oxen and looked up at the underside of the yoke where the hitching ring was attached.  With surprise and deep concern he saw that the original block of wood that had been used for the construction of the yoke was not suitable whatsoever.  In fact he had discarded that particular piece just two weeks earlier when he had made up several new blanks and placed them into the haystack around back to cure and to dry for use the next year.  So not only was the wood unsuitable for use as a yoke beam due to irregularities in the grain, but it was green as well and would be quite prone to just the sort of checking and cracking Joseph was seeing on the underside of the yoke.

As a young farmer, Nathaniel knew the basics of running the business, but he still had a lot to learn.  Had he known more he never would have accepted the yoke because of the obvious problems it presented.  Joseph was grateful that he had been brought into the issue when he was, for if the hitching ring had let loose or if the yoke had splintered and broken into pieces the possible danger to the one operating the plow was significant as wood, metal, and straps were sent flying, to say nothing of the potential harm the oxen might suffer as well.  Deeply concerned for his young friend and neighbor, Joseph asked Jesus to run to the wood shop and to grab a spare set of traces with which to harness and lead the oxen home. He did not want Nathaniel to use the defective yoke for even a minute longer.

After Jesus returned with the traces, Joseph gently unfastened the yoke and carefully, so as not to cause pain to the injured ox, removed it and laid it off to one side.  Then using his tapes and measuring sticks Joseph proceeded to re-measure the two oxen, carefully gauging the distance between them as well as the particular musculature of each one in order to ensure that the new yoke would allow the team to put their maximum energy into the task at hand.  Slowly and methodically Joseph labored in the lantern-lit darkness, checking and rechecking before jotting down the measurements on a piece of wood with a small piece of charcoal he used for such purposes.

When he had finished, he straightened up and said to his young neighbor, ‘Nathaniel, I am so sorry this happened, however I promise I will make it right. Bring your oxen back in two days and I will have a new yoke ready for you. Hopefully by then the chafing on the one ox’s shoulder will have healed enough for you to resume plowing. Again, I am truly sorry to have let you down like this.’

Touched by his neighbor’s sincerity Nathaniel could only nod in agreement as he picked up the traces and slowly led his pair of oxen back home. He would be back in two days, however he had no idea how Joseph would be able to have a new yoke finished by then as it normally took up to a week to fully carve and prepare a new yoke. What he did not know was that Joseph had already made a plan.  He and his son were going to have a teaching moment together for the next two days…round the clock!

And so as Nathaniel moved on out of earshot Joseph turned to his own son and called him to his side.  He could see that the boy was quite shaken up by the whole thing and that he had been crying in the darkness as his father had taken on himself all of the criticism and blame for his own actions.  Speaking first, Jesus said softly, ‘I am so sorry father…I had so wanted to please you and to make you proud of me. When Benjamin told me his father was in need of a new yoke for his oxen we made a plan while you were away to make it ourselves. I gave Benjamin a cheap price to give to his father and together we tried to measure the oxen just as I have seen you do in the past.  I found that main beam piece around back in the shed and thought it would work well because it was the right size and all. I just wanted you to be proud of what I was able to do all on my own.’

Gently Joseph began to explain all of the reasons why Jesus’ plan had not yielded the results he was hoping for. He told him of the need to measure so carefully and of the need to consider each animal all by itself, with its own unique body shape and size, as well as how the two oxen stood together in order to insure that a yoke would allow each of them to best do the work for which they were being asked.  He told him about the need to select only the best and straightest grained wood as well as to ensure that it was sufficiently dry so as to prevent checking and cracking after it was completed. 

And then he told his young son to go back into the house and to explain to his mother what had happened…as well as to inform her that the two of them would be making a new yoke for Nathaniel and working on it straight until it was finished. Upon hearing her son’s account, Mary understood even if Jesus did not as yet, that she need not wait up for her husband to go to bed.  She knew the dedication her husband had when it came to caring for neighbors in need, and somehow she also realized how important this time of father and son together would be.  And so, she kissed Jesus on the cheek and told him to run along, back out the wood shop where Joseph had already lit the lanterns and had pulled in a new, fully seasoned main beam for the project that lay ahead.

And over the next two days the two of them worked side by side, chiseling, drilling, steaming the new ox bows into shape, and carefully shaping the inside of the neck of the yoke so as to fit the measurements Joseph had so carefully taken of each of Nathaniel’s oxen. Using ancient tools of the woodworker’s art, Jesus learned how to use an adze, a spokeshave, a chisel, and a block plane.  Joseph taught him how to read the grain of the wood so as to take advantage of the beam’s strength while still making the yoke as light as possible. 

Jesus learned as Joseph taught him, that the greatest concern must first be for the oxen themselves, for if the yoke were made properly, they would not know it was really even there. He learned how to make the inside edges of the yoke, where it contacted the shoulders of the ox as smooth as glass so as not to rub or chafe against the animal’s skin.  He learned that the yoke was simply and truly a means by which the power of the oxen was transferred into the work at hand. He learned that a proper yoke would allow the oxen to accomplish all and more than what the owner had hoped for, and that properly fitted, a yoke could be worn and used for days on end without fear of harming or injuring the oxen. And finally, he also learned just how much his father loved him as he carefully taught him how to correct his mistake without judging him or expressing any anger.  Jesus learned that true humility came from knowing who you truly were.

In truth Joseph was upset, but not with his son.  He knew his son had much to learn and his heart was warmed by the boy’s desire to learn a trade that was such an important part of the family history.  Rather he was upset that Nathaniel had been let down. Community was a way of life for their small town, and everyone had to look out for one another, no matter what.  As for himself, his personal reputation mattered little to him, but caring for his customers and his neighbors was of paramount importance.  For Joseph truly knew who he was, he knew what he could do and could not do, and he understood how much life itself was a gift from God and was to be cherished each and every moment.

But as he labored there alongside of his son, Joseph so wanted to teach his son the more critical lessons of life…the reasons why humility, gentleness, and compassion were such an important part of any life well-lived.  He wanted his son to know without a shadow of a doubt that no matter what he did, no matter what he decided to do with his life going forward, he was first a child of God and that no matter what; God loved him just as he was. 

Joseph knew also that God had blessed him with particular gifts and talents to be sure, but also that he was still very human and as prone as anyone was to make an occasional mistake or to harbor an errant thought…and Joseph knew that even in spite of this God never wavered in his love for him…that God was not seeking perfection from him or from anyone, but rather desired true devotion and humility…the two qualities most needed to establish and maintain a healthy and loving relationship…and a healthy and loving community. 

And it was these two qualities that Joseph worked so hard to instill in his son over the course of those two days as they worked side by side in the shop, discussing the finer points of life and of love for one another…and for God.  And as they labored, and as Jesus learned from his father, the two of them grew closer together than they had ever been, each one becoming a delight to the other as they toiled away on that replacement yoke for Nathaniel.  And sure enough, two days later Nathaniel showed up at Joseph’s woodshop just as the afternoon sun was beginning to set.

Proudly Jesus himself carried out the newly finished yoke, freshly carved and hand-rubbed with oil.  Handing it over to his father, Joseph lifted the main beam up and over onto the shoulders of two oxen, making sure that it fit them perfectly.  The ox that had been injured previously was fully healed and Nathaniel marveled at how well the new yoke fit onto the shoulders of his team.  He did not know what to say and could only ask Joseph how he had been able to make such a fine piece of equipment in such a short time.  Joseph just smiled and said, ‘My son Jesus helped me…he has a great eye and feel for things such as these.’  And with that Nathaniel led his team away, delighted that he could resume plowing early the next morning.

And over time, Jesus became more and more adept at making yokes.  He learned those deeper lessons well from his father, and soon was the most sought after maker of yokes in all of Judea.  The yokes Jesus made matched the animal and the task at hand perfectly and all who used them swore they could get so much more done in a single day than ever before.  And for a time even Joseph stopped making them so sought after were the yokes of his son. 

That was true for a time…until the day that Jesus told his father that the call of God seemed to be leading him away from the woodworker’s trade.  He shared that he felt called to preach and teach about the deepest things of life, about the truth of God’s love for everyone and the need to encourage people to rise up and to claim the joy and the peace he had first learned of in the woodshop with his father…

…and as Jesus watched the crowd gathering below him he reflected back on all that had happened since he had had that difficult conversation with his father.  He remembered the tears in both his own and his parent’s eyes as he said goodbye and walked out of the house leaving the wood and the work of his ancestry behind.  But he also knew that those early lessons were still so important and still so grounded in the true nature of God…he knew that humility and compassion were critical in building and sustaining the family and community of God…and for three long years now that had been the central core of his message.

And as the crowd settled in around him he looked up to heaven and prayed that his words would be genuine and holy, that they would truly find people in their place of need and encourage them once again to turn to the God of their ancestors…causing them to look anew, and to find the truth that the love of God was unconditional and unshakeable…that it was there for the asking and there for the living…they just had to trust in him…

Then looking up at them he waited while they all grew silent, waiting for the perfect moment to begin…and then in a carefully measured tone Jesus gently began, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’, he said. ‘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.’  And as he spoke he could see the hearts of those there listening begin to soften, and the light of hope beginning to kindle in their eyes…and somehow he knew his father would have been so proud…


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