A Sermon for Weary Worshippers

Matthew 11:28-30

Weary from worship

Anyone who has been involved in worship ministry for an extended period of time can probably understand why   Matthew 11:28 seems like an appropriate text for a sermon on worship – “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  Sometimes worship can make us weary.  We have this nagging feeling in the back of our mind that tells us it shouldn’t be that way – that we should always love worship and we should always be thankful for the privilege of leading others in worship…but inevitably there come seasons in our lives when worshipping God is difficult.  There are times when we leave a Sunday service feeling like we’ve been wandering around a spiritual desert, rather than drinking freely of the water of life. There are times when we are hungry to be fed spiritually, and yet for some reason we can’t seem to find anything nourishing at Church.  Worse yet are the times when we feel nothing – when we are numb to the presence of God and don’t seem to be bothered by it at all.

These dry seasons can come easily when you are a worship leader.  It is not hard to get lost in the details of planning practices, choosing music, coordinating schedules, leading services…the next thing you know you are walking through the church doors on Sunday morning and instead of preparing yourself to encounter the living God you are feeling the urge to run in the other direction. Sometimes the life gets choked out by the pressure of leadership: particularly in free church traditions, where there is not much of a set liturgy, there is a lot of pressure on worship leaders and worship planners to deliver a “good service” each Sunday.  But aside from the external pressures that come along with being a part of any church family, there are ways in which our own approach to worship can turn it into a burden.

Worship is a burden when we see it as a way of earning God’s favour. Sometimes we slip into that mode of thinking where we believe that somehow God might love us more if we were better worshippers or better worship leaders.  That somehow we might build up a credit with God by showing up on Sundays and doing our part.  But we can’t earn God’s favour – not even by our most spiritual and worshipful acts. If we think that we are going to gain God’s approval by the things we do on a Sunday morning we we will end up carrying a burden that is too much to bear.

Worship is also a burden when it is done to win the favour of others. Maybe this one hits closer to home.  One of the dangers of the contemporary worship scene is its potential to create “worship stars” and “worship celebrities.” Even being a “successful” worship leader at your local church can bring a certain amount of status and praise from others.  But this kind of recognition is more of a curse than a blessing!  If worship is done to win the favour of others, it will become a burden that we will only carry in order to gain something for ourselves.

Finally, worship is a burden when it becomes a source of pride. If we start to view ourselves as the “true worshippers,” and draw lines in the sand between ourselves and others – either in our own church or in other churches – our worship will become a burden that will weigh us down spiritually.  If we start to gaze around the sanctuary and see who is lifting their hands, who looks like they are “really into it,” and who does not, pride will start to take over.  The worst part about the burden of prideful worship is that the proud are often too proud to notice the heavy weight that they are carrying.

The weariness of worship in Jesus’ day

In Matthew 11 Jesus is addressing himself to people who were worn out with religious observances.  I think it was quite easy to become weary of worship in Jesus’ day, especially if you weren’t one of the religious elites.   And as far as I can tell there is only one other place in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus talks about “burdens,” and that is in Matthew 23:4 – a passage where he is sharply criticizing the Pharisees for the way they were exploiting their authority over the ordinary people: “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”  He goes on to criticize the Pharisees for the way in which their spirituality had become all about winning the favour of others:  “Everything they do is for men to see…they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them ‘Rabbi.’”  Later he talks about how they follow the letter of the law but they have neglected the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and faith.  These religious leaders – we might call them “worship experts” – are the ones who criticize Jesus for healing on the sabbath; they are the ones who are scandalized by the fact that Jesus hung around with tax collectors and sinners. Their worship and spirituality had definitely become a source of pride which weighed them down and prevented them from seeing the truth. For although they sat confidently atop their tall towers of spiritual expertise and looked down upon the amateurish masses of spiritual infants that surrounded them, they could not see that in rejecting Jesus they were rejecting God himself.  In fact, not only did they reject him, but they decided that he was so much of a threat to their power that they needed to eliminate him altogether – their reaction to Jesus was an intense desire to kill him.

These people were pretty serious about their religious observances.  They didn’t mess around.   Now you may be aware that there are 613 commandments in the Old Testament.  We all know that there are 10 big ones, but if you go through the entire Old Testament and count them all there are 613.  And in Jesus day these religious leaders, these worship experts, had added many more commandments.  These extra commandments were meant as a kind of insurance policy – what they were trying to do was to build a “fence around the law” – so that even if you broke one of these “extra” commandments on the fenceline, you still hadn’t stepped across the line of the scriptural command.  So you can imagine, if you lived a life where obedience to hundreds of commandments was central to your spirituality, and if you had to answer to a group of people who were as intense and fanatical as the Pharisees, you would get worn out with spirituality pretty easily.

The “weary” and the “burdened” in Jesus time were those who couldn’t keep up with the strict standards of the religious elites.  They were trying to please God by their observances but they couldn’t seem to colour inside the lines of the page that has been given to them by their authorities; they were trying to please their religious leaders but they couldn’t seem to keep up to the fast pace and the rigid rhythms of the song that the religious leaders were singing.   It was a spiritually exhausting environment – either you did not measure up, and ended up feeling spiritually inadequate, or worse yet, you thought you could keep up, and your spirituality and ended up becomign a source of pride – in which case, you probably wouldn’t be willing to listen to the carpenter from backwater Galilee who told you to repent and believe the good news!

Jesus promises rest to the weary

It is in this context that Jesus makes his famous invitation in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  He offers a solution to the problem of worship weariness which totally subverts the expectations of everyone.

He calls “all who are weary and burdened.”  He doesn’t invite the super spiritual.  He doesn’t invite the religious elites.  He doesn’t invite the worship experts.  He invites the strugglers.  The people who stagger under the weight of religious expectations. The people whose spiritual bank accounts are completely drained.  The people who know that they need to be rescued. The sinners, the tax collectors, the poor, the prostitutes, the “little children” who have no claim on his grace, no claim on his favour, who have no religious status to lean on, but must come  to him with nothing in their hands but their own burdens.

He says to them, “Come to me.”  The solution to their weariness is not more passionate spiritual practices or a kind of religious observance – it is a person.  The solution is Jesus Christ himself.  He says Come to me. Turn to me.  Put your trust in me.  No matter what your burden, I am the solution.  I am the one who can relieve your burdens. I am the one who “gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.” [Isa 40.29] I am the one “who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.” [Ps 103.5]  This is what the “worship experts” of Jesus’ day could not see – that he was the living God incarnate, and they needed to come to him to be refreshed; to understand that he was the messiah, and that he could break every chain and relieve every burden.  This is what the proud and the wise could not bring themselves to do: to come to Jesus as the one who could relieve their burdens. They were “the wise” whom Jesus refers to in verse 25 – the ones who couldn’t recognize Jesus as messiah and Lord, the ones who thought they had their act together. They thought they were spiritually self-sufficient.  But Jesus said “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”  The ones who are called to come to Jesus are the “little children,” the ones who haven’t made anything of themselves spiritually, the ones who can’t lean on their own accomplishments.

And not only does Jesus call these weary, undeserving little children, but he  immediately goes on to give them a promise: “I will give you rest.”  The rest he promises them is a full and complete relief from the burden trying to earn favour with God and others by getting their spiritual act together.  It’s too late for that.  Jesus has already shown up. They don’t have time to get their spiritual act together. He has crashed down like a meteor onto the religious landscape of first-century Palestine, and disrupted everything.  He has come to them, right into the middle of their messy lives, and now he is standing there promising, “I will give you rest.”  They do not need to earn favour with God by their pious worship – he has promised it to them by his grace. God’s love and favour is theirs in Jesus Christ. It does not matter that they are a spiritual mess; the promise of rest is for them. It is the rest that comes from trusting in Christ to relieve their burdens, and set them free from the prison of spiritual self-sufficiency.  Trusting in Christ’s promise brings uninterrupted rest, because he is the complete Saviour. There is nothing that can be done to add to his faithful work.

The promise of Christ is for you

If you are a weary worshipper, the promise of Christ is for you.  I will give you rest.

If you are a worship leader who is weary and worn down from the week in and week out task of trying to lead people into God’s presence, lean on the promise of Christ.  Do you sometimes feel like you’re not up for the job?  Good!  Christ’s promise of rest is for you.  Do you feel unworthy of the honour of leading the people of God as they enter into his presence?  Excellent!  You should be worried if you don’t feel unworthy.  The promised rest that comes from trusting fully in the merits of Christ is for you.

Not all of us are worship leaders.  Are you a worshipper who feels like you’re not quite devoted enough?  Do you feel like you’re not as spiritual as the person in the next pew?  Do you feel like you are not passionate enough?  Wonderful!  Christ’s promise is for you.  Christ is speaking to you through his word today.

He is saying “I will give you restI will give you rest.  You will not find rest in your own abilities as worship leader.  You will not find rest in your own passion and devotion as a worshipper.  You will not find rest in your love for God, but rather, in God’s love for you.”

You see, we can’t earn the rest that comes from being embraced by the love of God.  Not with our devotion, not with our passion, not with our talents.  And certainly not with our worship.  But we don’t need to earn it!  In our worship we celebtrate the favour we have with God; we have the rest that comes from the completed work of Jesus Christ

That is why worship under the yoke of Christ is a light burden!  If we worship to earn God’s favour – now that would be a heavy burden.  If think we can impress God with these simple songs we sing to him, we will end up crushed under the weight of a burden that our worship is not meant to bear.

But if we start from the fact that we have the promise of Christ, our worship is a light burden.  We worship the God who has already favoured us in Jesus Christ; Christ, who in his perfect earthly life has already accomplished everything he asks of us.  Christ who is the author and perfecter of our faith, who has blazed the trail before us and promised us that we will be conformed to his likeness.  When we begin with the victory that Christ has won for us, our worship is a truly free act of love and gratitude – a free response to God’s decisive action on our behalf in Christ.

What I’m saying is, when we lean on the promises of Christ, the pressure to be perfect worshippers is off. We aren’t perfect.  Not even close. We’re not adequate.  We’re not worthy.  We’re not self-sufficient.  But that doesn’t keep us up at night. We have rest for our souls because the completed work of Christ is the fountain out of which flows our love for God and all of our acts of worship.

The thing that I think so many Christians miss is that, as we make the transformation from “weary” to “restful” we can’t begin by looking inside of ourselves, at to our own spiritual state or our own spiritual resources; if we do that we’ll definitely end up weary and burdened.  Instead we need to begin outside of ourselves, with the promise of Christ and his gospel, a promise that was made before any of us had sung our first “Jesus loves me.” And the wonderful mystery of Christ’s promise is this: as we fix our gaze outside of ourselves and rest fully on the promise of Christ, it is that promise which will change us from the inside out.

Benedict XVI on the unholy holiness of the Church

A favourite quote from the current pope, on how the church’s holiness must be patterned after the holiness of Christ, which continually shocks and surprises us, cutting against the grain of our human expectations of “purity”:

“On the contrary, this holiness expressed itself precisely as mingling with the sinners whom Jesus drew into his vicinity; as mingling to the point where he himself was made “to be sin” and bore the curse of the law in execution as a criminal – complete community of fate with the lost (cf. 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:13). He has drawn sin to himself, made it his lot and so revealed what true “holiness” is: not separation but union, not judgment but redeeming love. Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness; is it not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinner, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seeems to sink under its weight? Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectation of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love, love which does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order thus to overcome it? Can therefore the holiness of the Church be anything else but the mutual support which comes, of course, from the fact that all of us are supported by Christ? I must admit that to me this unholy holiness of the Church has in itself something infinitely comforting about it.”

-Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, p. 264-5.