5th Sunday After Pentecost
Grace, Mercy and Peace from God our Father, His Son our Lord, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
This morning, I am going to begin this message with a parable about two oxen. For those of you who are farmers and ranchers who know how oxen or horses are used for working the fields, some of this may be information you already have. For those of us who were not raised on a farm or were born after the invention of the tractor, may find this information new.
Oxen and horses were often used as beasts of burden, that is, they were used to haul heavy loads in wagons, grind grain by pushing or pulling a large millstone, or for pulling the plow through the fields in order to plant a crop.
The first mention of animals being used this way in the Scriptures is in Numbers 19:2. Yet we know people had been yoking their animals from the beginning when in Genesis 27:40 we are told how Jacob had cheated his brother Esau out of their father Isaac’s inheritance and so Isaac gave Esau this blessing:
“Behold, your dwelling shall be of the fatness of the earth,
And of the dew of heaven from above.
By your sword you shall live,
And you shall serve your brother;
And it shall come to pass, when you become restless,
That you shall break his yoke from your neck.” [Genesis 27:39-40]
The yoke was how the farmer controlled the oxen. Usually two animals were bound together under the yoke. Interestingly enough, an older, gentler ox, who knew the commands of the master, was commonly yoked with a younger, untrained ox. The following is about two such oxen.
One morning, a young ox, which had spent all his young days, grazing in the fields and sleeping at nights in a nice warm barn, was yoked to an old ox. This elderly ox was big yet weathered. His horns had been cut off and his eyes were cloudy with age.
The young ox was brash and full of energy. He pulled, tugged and pushed against the yoke and the old ox next to him. He was frustrated and bellowed at the farmer’s prod and the yoke that controlled him.
The old ox tried to calm him and told him that his energy was being wasted fighting the yoke and their master. He tried to explain to the young ox that he should accept his position in life and thus be able to do the long day’s work ahead of them.
The young ox swore to be free of his master’s yoke and to live his life as he wished. The old ox just sighed. ‘If you were free,’ he asked, ‘where would you go?
‘Our master provides for us even when we disobey him. He gives us shelter from the storms, protection from the wolves and lions that would eat us; he heals us when we are sick and gives us food.’
By the end of the day, unable to break free from the bonds of his master, the young ox was tired. His hooves were dragging in the dirt and the yoke weighed heavily upon his shoulders. It was getting dark and he could hear the wolves howling in the forest. Up ahead of them he saw the barn, his home; but he was so tired from fighting the plow and the farmer.
The old ox tells him, ‘You have labored hard against that which was always your place in life. I will take your weight of the yoke and you can lean on me. It is true that I am gentle and lowly in heart, but learn from me and you will find rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’
The young ox gratefully gave up his burden and they both came to rest in their master’s barn where they enjoyed warm fresh straw in which to lie and plentiful good food in which to eat.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, we are not animals, but we are under the yoke of the law placed upon us by our Father in heaven. He is the true master of all creation. He provides for all peoples whether they do His work or not.
Since the time of Moses, the yoke of the law was placed on our shoulders. We have fought that yoke in order to break free and therefore be able to follow our own bull-headed desires. We do not want to work in the fields of the Lord, but to run to our own sin.
We wish to murder, covet and steal. We do not want to help our neighbors but to butt them out of our way. Our way that leads to self-gratification and eternal condemnation. We desire to eat to excess, drink to excess and to commit adultery in every sense of the word. Left to our own devices, we will surely be devoured by the roaring lion and the ravenous wolf that is Satan.
Thinking we were free, we were actually captives in a pit of despair. Our Creator saw fit to guide us through the use of a yoke, the blood of the covenant. This is the Law of God that shows us our sin and curbs us from transgression.
I know this yoke personally. I now wear a yoke both literally and figuratively. I wear the literal yoke of office around my neck every Sunday. Today we call it a stole.
This stole is believed to be, “connected with the scarf of office among Imperial officials in the Roman Empire.”  Later, during the times of Constantine I, “members of the clergy became members of the Roman administration and were granted certain honors, one specifically being a designator of rank within the imperial (and ecclesiastical) hierarchy.”
The theory I like best is that it originated from a kind of liturgical napkin called an orarium and therefore it is linked to the napkin used by Christ in washing the feet of his disciples, and is a fitting symbol of the yoke of Christ, the yoke of service.
Jesus Christ knew first hand of the yoke of service. He came from his Father’s house in heaven into the fields of humankind. He became human in flesh and blood. He put on the yoke of the Law. Yet unlike us, he did not fight the commands of his master. He followed the Law perfectly. He did as his Father ordered. He bore the burden of the Law and our sin to the cross of death. He descended into the pit of our enemy and set us free from the prison of eternal death.
On the third day he raised himself up from the tomb to declare to all us ‘prisoners of hope’ that he will restore double to us; life in him here on earth and life eternal with him in his kingdom. [Zechariah 9:12]
Now the yoke is on you! In your sin, you are free to be slaughtered every day and to die under the yoke of the Law. In your baptism, you have been yoked to Christ our Savior. While here on this earth, we are all under the Law and the penalty of our sin is death, but we are no longer captives to sin but prisoners of hope. [Zechariah 9:12]
We labor in the fields of our God, preparing the ground for the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Our labor is hard and we are heavily laden with the Law, but we are not bearing this burden alone. In fact, we are not bearing the burden at all.
I know, at times, it seems like we are bearing the weight of the whole world on our shoulders, but we are not. In our joining to Christ through our baptism, he has taken the sin from us. He who is gentle and lowly in heart has lifted us up and made our yoke easy and our burden light. [Matthew 11:28-30]
We now work for Christ through the Holy Spirit. We forgive one another as he has forgiven us. We love our neighbors as he has loved us. As St. Paul wrote to the church in Galatia,
“…if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” [Galatians 6:1-2]
I wear the yoke of service in Christ, as do all of you. As a sinner, I can become frustrated, angry and bull-headed as I am prodded through the fields of this world. Yet I know that I am not the master. I do not know my master’s will. It is not I who decides where to plow or when to plant or when to harvest. If left to my own devices, that furrow would be crooked and worthless, not able to bear any crop at all.
Therefore, learn from the one who bears the heavy yoke of the Law. Give up your burden to the one who bore your sin-laden souls on the cross. He is gentle and lowly in heart, and in him you will find rest for your souls.