Once upon a time there lived a very wise and wealthy man. He was known throughout the land for the huge portions of land that he owned and farmed. It seemed that every year he was opening up new areas for planting, and hiring new hands to work the plows. He owned hundreds of teams of oxen to work his land, which stretched farther than a person could walk in a week. Even though he had many oxen, he took pleasure in going to the local auctions to purchase new beasts. After all, he would say: “I am always in need of a few more good oxen.”
And so it was that the master took one of his young servants along with him to the cattle auction one day. He and the servant spent a leisurely day looking at every single animal that had been brought that week. When the time finally came to make a bid for the desired animals, the young servant felt he had pretty much figured out which beasts the master would take. There were many fine, young, and strong animals at the auction that day. Any of them would have made a welcome addition to his master’s teams.
As the animals were brought through and bid upon one at a time the servant began to grow confused. Nearly all the good oxen had come through, and yet his master had made no move to bid on any of them. The less desirable animals began to be led through. Suddenly the master turned to his servant and asked “What do you think of that one?” He pointed to a particularly uninspiring animal. As the young servant watched for a moment he could see that the poor beast favoured one side. It was all the handler could do to get it to walk in mostly straight line. He told the master as much. “Master, far be it from me to judge your wisdom, but if you put that ox in front of a plow your furrows will go nowhere. Your fields will be plowed in great big circles!” The master merely looked at the servant thoughtfully, then proceeded to buy the animal.
A short while later the master spoke up again. When the servant looked at the new animal, he felt for sure that the Master must be playing some sort of cruel joke on him. Even to one as untrained as he, it was obvious that this animal had been severely abused. It was weak and listless. Unfit to drag its tail, much less pull a plow. It could barely even hold up its head. The servant was speechless. He merely sat there shaking his head in disbelief as once again, the master made a bid. No one else did.
By the time the two of them got home with the oxen the servant was feeling very wretched indeed. Had the master lost his senses in the heat of the day? Was this all a big joke at his expense? Was he going to get the blame when these two pathetic oxen didn’t work out? Trying to minimize the damage the servant felt compelled to speak up. “Should I pair these two up and get them working on one of the new sections of land?” You see, he knew of a new section wouldn’t produce much this year anyway.
“No” the master replied. They will each spend the first day yoked to my prize ox. And we will give them a good piece of ground to work. “But master,” the servant said in a stunned voice “Surely you could get more done if you leave your best oxen yoked to each other. Any old cow could work just as well with these sorry beasts!” “Just do as I say, and you will see.” was all the response he received.
Very shortly all was set up as the master had asked. His prized ox was brought out and hitched to the first beast with the finest yoke money could buy. As the servant reluctantly started the two moving he expected the new ox to favour its side as it had in the pen. He braced himself to pull them back in line. With the first couple of steps his fears proved right, the new one was nudging into the prize ox. He turned to look at the master, surely now he would stop this. The master merely waved at him to keep going. In a few short minutes the servant’s disdain began to turn into wonder. To his amazement, the more the two walked together, the straighter the lines got. By the end of the morning, the new ox didn’t even favour his side any more. He walked as straight and as proud as the prize ox.
When he stopped for a break all he could ask the master was “How?” The master came over and said “Look here. Do you see these marks upon the neck and shoulders? Especially on the side it used to favour? These were left by the previous yoke the animal wore. It was crude, and rough, it did not fit well and it ended up pulling this animal off course until it became a habit. The yoke we now have on it is much better, much lighter, and it does not pull. It was then only a simple matter of letting my prize ox teach this one how to pull straight.
“Amazing!” the servant replied “But now what about this one that can’t even hold up its own head?” He pointed at the other new acquisition. “Again,” the master said, “look at the marks. The yoke it once bore was far too heavy. It was more of a burden than it could carry day after day. Yoke him now with my prize ox and we will see what we will see.” The second ox was then placed in the best yoke with the prize animal and the two were started up. For the first few minutes it looked as if only the prize ox was doing any work. It was all that the other could do to keep up. But then as the time continued to stretch on, again something wonderful began to happen. Minute by minute the weaker ox seemed to brighten up. Its head got higher little by little. Little by little the pace picked up and the new ox seemed to gain new life and vigour. If the servant didn’t know better he would have said that it seemed as if the prize ox had in some way given this weak one his own strength. Where earlier that day he had seen only two pathetic and sorry beasts he now saw how wise his master had been in buying them. The would be very valuable to the work of the master.
God has called us to cultivate the earth, making it ready to hear His fertile Word of Law and Gospel. The harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few. God has put a very straightforward path before us here at Christ Our Hope. What is that straight path? The prophet Micah explained it this way “He has shown you, O Man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God. Like the oxen in the story, this is the straight path that God would have his servants walk; doing what is right, living in kindness, and leading humble lives that point to the mercy we have received in Christ.
But like the oxen in the story, we too were once governed by a master other than God. That master was sin. The sin into which each and every one of us was born. That sin held control over our lives like a yoke around our necks. It lead us away from God and the straight paths he would have us follow. It is also a yoke that’s impossibly heavy to bear. The burden of sin is death. And this was enough to weigh us down and take away any strength we had so that even if we wanted to follow God, we just wouldn’t have the power to do so.
(Lam. 1:14) “My transgressions were bound into a yoke; by His hand they were fastened together; they were set upon my neck; it caused my strength to fail” (Psa. 38:4) “For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me.” The scriptures clearly show that every thought word and deed that we once committed against God’s Word was added to the yoke around our necks. That yoke of sin is a burden so heavy that it becomes impossible for those who wear it to follow God of their own strength.
On our own we have little worth. The yoke of sin beats down and breaks down even the best of us, robbing us of any lasting value. No one can bear up under it. But when that yoke is removed and instead we are bound to Christ, miracles happen. Our lives become extraordinary. In our text Jesus said that we are to take his yoke upon us and learn from him, for he is gentle and lowly in heart. He will give us rest for our burdened souls.
“Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He says. God has come to us in our worthless state and purchased us with his very own blood. Even though we had done nothing for him, nor could we possibly, given our condition; he paid a high price for us. “Being found in human form Jesus humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.” Christ himself came to earth and took the yoke of mankind’s sin upon his own shoulders and walked the straight path God had placed before him. A path that led to Calvary and the cross. Because of Christ’s death upon the cross our burden has been made light indeed. The yoke of sin has been taken from us once and for all. Christ took it from our shoulders and left it in the tomb when he rose from the dead. Its overpowering weight of guilt and punishment and fear will never burden us again.
In its place he has given us a new yoke. One that fits us perfectly. One that is light and pleasant to bear. It is the yoke of Faith. It no longer hitches us to the burden of sin and the death it brings. This yoke of Faith hitches us to the freedom of forgiveness, and eternal life in Christ. This yoke connects us to the master Jesus Christ. It is a yoke tailor made to each and every one of us by Christ himself. It is a yoke that he gladly bears with us, so that he can help us to walk the straight paths God has put before us, and so that he can lend us strength and life and vigour for the task when we have none of our own. It is a yoke not made out of some cold, inanimate material. It is a yoke formed by Christ’s arms wrapped around us in love, to protect and guide and lift us up in love.
In our lives we have been subjected to a pair of very different yokes. The first was the yoke of sin. This yoke was carved out of the disobedience of the first man. It is a torturous, heavy burden. It is rough and ill shaped. It chafes, and wounds those who wear it. It pulls from the straight paths God has set before us. Through our Baptism , however, we have now been hitched to Christ with a very different yoke. This yoke is easy. It is pleasant, good, superior, kind, benevolent, and gracious! It is a yoke carved out of the perfect obedience of the one man who willingly followed the straight path God had laid out for mankind. Being placed in this perfectly fitting yoke and being supported by Jesus himself; we Christians can and will walk the straight paths God has set before us, cultivating this world as we go.