Listen to it:
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rest for our souls. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? If anything is needed in our age, it’s rest. We long for rest. We work five days a week, 50 weeks a year so we can have two days off per week and two weeks off per year. (And then we find that we need rest from our resting.) On the Fourth of July, people all over this country celebrated 232 years of freedom and independence from kings and bishops who would tell us what to do-although someone might ask whether the tyranny of the people is really better than any other tyranny. Nonetheless, this country still symbolizes freedom for many people who are living and dying under oppressive governments around the world. The one word that can sum up this country’s greatness is “freedom.” Still, 232 years of the American dream have not yet been able to give people freedom or rest from their burdens. When people come to the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” are they suddenly free of the burden to support their families? Does the burden of taxation-even with representation-suddenly go away? What about the burden of being a good wife, or husband, or child? Or the burden of upholding laws with which we don’t necessarily agree? Or the burden of being good stewards of an earth that has limited resources? Of course not, because nobody can have unrestricted freedom without interfering with someone else’s freedom. The burdens of living life, retaining liberty, and pursuing happiness are heavy, even in this free country. And those burdens can, at times, seem overwhelming and impossible to bear. The only thing that can relieve humans of the weight of so much responsibility is death, since dead people no longer have to deal with all of the burdens, not just of living in this country, but of living life. No, not even the freedom of the United States, as broad as it is, can guarantee rest for our restless souls.
So the search for rest continues. But we’re looking in all the wrong places-and there are a lot of them. The typical narcotics are all readily available: sex, drugs, alcohol. Those things can make you forget your burdens temporarily. Family time, lakeside cabins, days off; travel, television, movies. The options for trying to find rest for your tired body and soul are endless. Even church is, for some people, their resting place. It is comfortable and familiar, with predictable people and events, and, like any other support group, it’s a place where people go to talk about their problems and feel affirmed. But the exhaustion level stays the same. Your mind still whirls with bills, children, husband or wife, work; mistakes you’ve made and guilt you can’t get rid of. Even though you can keep your body healthy and your energy up, you are not just flesh! There’s that part of you on which you can’t quite put a finger. Something restless. You have unfulfilled dreams, unrealized longings, unaccomplished goals. You have a marriage that has ended or a family member who has died or crops that fail or a country at war. Raise your hand if you think that’s how things should be. And how tiring it is to think about the days, weeks, months, and years stretching out ahead of you! Perhaps restlessness, rather than freedom, is the best word to describe us. There is a reason for our restlessness. It is a symptom of another burden that is not removed because we are citizens of the United States, nor is it removed even when we die: the burden of living under the Law of God. Some people think that because this nation guarantees free exercise of religion, they are ultimately free to worship the gods that make their hearts flutter and that seem to soothe their troubled consciences. But whether they, or we, recognize it, the freedom in this country to choose which religion to practice (or not to practice) does not relieve anyone of the burden to uphold the Law of the one true God, Yahweh. That Law goes beyond all other laws; it overrules all other rules. God’s Law is built into creation itself. Whatever else “Nature’s God” has bestowed upon His creation, He has bestowed the obligation of keeping His Law, all of it. St. James reminds us, “[W]hoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10, ESV). The freedom granted by governments and constitutions is worthless for sinners before God. And it is not only Christians who are restless under the weight of that burden. The restlessness comes to the surface in people’s never-ending attempts to justify their existence: by their lifestyles, their success, their families; they are trying to prove that they have some reason, any reason, for being here. That old question about the “meaning of life” is an attempt to figure out the point of all the working and worrying that people do in this life. The need we feel to justify ourselves before other people points to our need to justify ourselves before whatever ultimate Authority might be out there.
But the simple truth is that there is no rest and there is no justification outside of Jesus. Try as we might, rest is always just beyond our grasp; self-justification is never complete. Which doesn’t mean that we won’t try. “Thus says [Yahweh to Judah], ‘Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.’ But they said, ‘We will not walk in it'” (Jeremiah 6:16, ESV). We residents of the U.S., like those residents of Jerusalem, are stubborn children who will do precisely the opposite of what our Father says. Like perpetual four-year olds, or teenagers, or Gen. Xers, or Baby Boomers, we don’t want anyone telling us what to do, and that includes God. God says, “Keep My Law; be like this and do these things; obey Me and you will live.” But it was too much for our first parents and, by the time we are born, it is already too much for us. We threw off the light and easy yoke of Yahweh in favor of the heavy yoke of sin, and we brought upon ourselves the unbearable yoke of God’s Law. Repent, beloved, of your endless searching. Repent that you have tried to find rest outside of Jesus. Repent; you have forsaken the restful gathering of God’s people in this place in favor of your own ways of resting. You will be restless unless you rest in God. And in the very midst of the things that make for restlessness, Jesus calls out to every person within the sound of His voice: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, ESV). But people are quite content to search every other corner and every other so-called place of rest instead; the things that make for peace, for wholeness, for rest, are hidden from their eyes. Jesus says, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children” (Matthew 11:25, ESV). Because, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3, ESV). Are you a child before the heavenly Father, “casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7, ESV)? Have you desired the rest that He gives? Do you know how to take Christ’s yoke upon yourself? Or does your sin still hang heavy and burdensome around your neck, driving you into temptation? No, you and I do not give up our burdens eagerly; we like too much our counterfeit comforts and our replicas of real rest. How tightly we hold onto our burdens, so that they have to be taken forcibly from us! Rest must be given because, left to ourselves, we will not find it. Only death can bring rest to our exhausted minds, bodies, and souls.
But, little children, it is not your death that will relieve you of your burdens. Even your physical death cannot remove the burden of God’s Law from your back and give you rest. But there is a death that means rest for you. It is the death of the only One who is able to bear on His back the burden of the sin of the world, including and especially yours. Only the unblemished Lamb of God can take your burdens, your yokes, upon Himself and bear them out into the wilderness of death (Leviticus 16). He died outside the city, forsaken by men and God, and He alone bore the burden of your sin in His flesh. Are you weary, heavy-laden with the burdens of your life? Are you restless under the weight of your sin? Jesus says to you, “Come to me…and I will give you rest” (11:28). “[N]o one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” (Matthew 11:27, ESV). And no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him (John 6:44). The Father is drawing you now. Jesus chooses to reveal His Father to you. Come to Jesus before His pulpit and at His altar. The light and easy yoke of His death and resurrection for you is free for the taking. Jesus says to those who know that they will never find rest in this world: “Come in to my House and hear my Word to you; rest and be renewed. Be refreshed through the gift of My Body and My Blood. There is pardon and peace in the sacrament. Come often! Come always! When life is too much for your small shoulders, when death looms large, come and find rest for your souls.” The Church is a place where people in similar circumstances gather to seek rest. But it is no support group so you can feel better about yourself! It is the only place on this earth where Jesus Christ meets you to hand-deliver forgiveness and rest for your souls. It is here you find that even though your burdens will continue-because sin continues-they no longer separate you from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ your Lord (Romans 8:39). It is true that your rest is hidden, but that does not mean it is not real. Faith is the only way to see what is hidden from the eyes of the world. The grace of God means new eyes to see beyond the wasteland of this world’s imitations of rest, and to see true rest where the Body of Christ is gathered around her Head. The Holy Spirit gathers her from every corner of this restless world to the places where Jesus has promised to be found: in His Word and Sacraments. Here we learn from Him what it means to rest completely and fully. Here is rest that does not end, even when you walk out of this building and go back to your work. Here, today, you are put back onto the ancient paths, where the good way is. Together we walk in the way of peace. Jesus Himself is here and in Him we have eternal rest for our weary souls.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).
— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 7/02/08