“Rest for the Heavy Laden” (Matthew 11:25-30; Romans 7:14-25a)
In New York Harbor there stands a famous statue, the Statue of Liberty. In her one hand, Lady Liberty is holding a tablet bearing the date July 4, 1776, the day of America’s founding. In her other hand, she is holding aloft a torch, symbolizing liberty enlightening the world. In the harbor, the Statue of Liberty stands right next to Ellis Island, our nation’s largest immigration station for many years. Millions of immigrants made the long sea voyage from Europe in those days and came through Ellis Island, passing the Statue of Liberty as they arrived. They came seeking freedom. They came seeking opportunity. They came seeking better days. And so for those coming over on the boat–like my grandparents did, and I’m guessing some of your parents or grandparents did also–they would see the Statue of Liberty, and it served as a powerful symbol of hope and promise to them. And because it did, there is a plaque at the base of the statue, inscribed with a poem that reads in part:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Hope and promise for those weary travelers, that’s what the Statue of Liberty offered. But today I want to tell you about a greater hope and a greater promise, for all those loaded down with even greater burdens. That hope and that promise are found in the person of Jesus Christ, who says to us today, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Yes, “Rest for the Heavy Laden,” that is Jesus’ promise to you today.
“The heavy laden”? What sort of heavy load is Jesus talking about? What sort of burden might we be laboring under, from which Jesus will give us rest? Here Jesus is speaking of the burden of the law, which loads us down with heavy demands.
God’s law, the Ten Commandments, sets the highest possible standard for achieving salvation on our own: whole-hearted love for God and self-sacrificing love for neighbor. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a good summary of the Ten Commandments. Do this and you will live. The problem is, we don’t do this. And thus we will not live, that is, live eternally with God. Death and eternal separation from God is the judgment against every sinner who falls short.
And that includes you and me. We have not kept God’s law as it is meant to be kept. We fall short. How completely do you love God? Do you always seek and do his will above all things? Do you trust in him completely? Do you keep his name uppermost in your thinking? Do you love and learn God’s Word on a consistent basis and therefore set church time apart as sacred?
And then there’s your neighbor. How selflessly and self-sacrificially do you love whoever the person is that God puts in your path? Do you honor those in positions of authority that God has placed in your life? Do you always seek your neighbor’s welfare and well-being? Do you keep marriage as it ought to be kept, or do you instead yield to sexual temptation in thought, word, or deed? Do you ever take advantage of others financially, seeking an edge but to their disadvantage? Do you always speak well of your neighbor, or do you instead engage in gossip or hurtful criticism? The list could go on and on.
These are examples of how you and I fall short of keeping God’s law as it should be kept. We do fall short. We do sin. Even as Christians, we do not keep the law as we should, even though we know God’s commandments are right and good, and we know we should keep them. This is a heavy load that weighs upon our conscience. St. Paul expresses this burden and this frustration in the Epistle reading we heard today from Romans 7: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”
Can you identify with this, what St. Paul is saying? I know I can. In my mind I know what is the right way to live. I know God’s law is what is best for me and for others. But even though I know this, I don’t always do it. My sinful flesh gets in the way, and I yield to it. I do things I know I shouldn’t do, and I fail to do the things I know I should do. Hence my frustration and my guilty conscience. It can be a heavy load and a labor that wears me out.
St. Paul felt this too. He knew he could not be saved on the basis of his keeping of the law. And so he says at the end of Romans 7: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Yes, that’s where the law will leave you–in a state of wretchedness, as you realize that your best efforts at righteousness are not good enough.
So who will deliver us from this body of death? Paul answers his own question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Yes, thanks and praise indeed! God will deliver you from this body of death, and he does it through Jesus Christ our Lord. Jesus Christ, the only Son of the Father. Jesus Christ, the one who came down from heaven to be our brother and to fulfill the law on our behalf. He fulfills the keeping of it. Jesus always did the right thing. He also fulfills the punishment that the law lays down for those who break it. Even though he himself was without sin, Jesus took our sin upon himself and carried it in his body to the cross.
See that cross laid on Jesus. There is your heavy load laid on him. There is the unbearable burden that he bore for you. He took it, he bore it, and now you are freed from that load. The work is over, the labor is done. Jesus cries out, “It is finished!” The weight is lifted. Your conscience is cleansed. God’s forgiveness in Christ is full and it is free.
And so it is with that forgiveness and that victory in view, that Jesus says in our text, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Here is a promise that is for you, and it is true and utterly reliable. Christ Jesus will give you rest. Come to him in faith, trusting this his promise. He will give you rest. He does give you rest. Rest from the weariness of your trying to make it on your own. Rest from the labor of trying to justify yourself before God. Jesus does it for you. It’s his work, not yours, that will save you. You can have complete confidence as you face the prospect of death and the Day of Judgment. Christ’s promise is your confidence. He is your refuge. Take shelter in him.
Have you ever felt a big rest or relief after a long struggle or labor? You’ve been working outside all day under the hot sun. Your muscles are aching and tired. You’re drenched and drained from a long day of labor. Then you come inside, you take a shower, change clothes, drink about a gallon of refreshing liquid, and you can sit down and relax. Now take that feeling and multiply it by about a billion, and that’s what the rest and refreshment and relief that Jesus gives is like. You have rest now for your soul, knowing that your sins are forgiven and that it’s not up to you to earn your salvation. You have rest for both soul and body for eternity, knowing that Christ has won your resurrection from the dead and gives you life everlasting with God and with all the company of heaven.
I said at the outset that in the harbor of New York City there stands the Statue of Liberty, a great symbol of hope and freedom for all who come in by it. Political freedom and economic hope, that is. And as great as those things are, I’m reminded of another statue that stands outside another city, promising even greater blessings. It’s the statue of Cristo Redentor, Christ the Redeemer, which stands atop a mountain overlooking the city of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Standing over 100 feet high, Christ is seen looking down in blessing upon the city, his arms outstretched, as if to say, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” And the thing about Jesus is, he is no mere statue or symbol. He is the real deal, your living Lord and Savior, and he is speaking to you today.
Yes, dear friends, you who feel the burden of the law, you who labor under a guilty conscience, come to Christ once again today and lay down your heavy load. Jesus has borne it for you. He lifts it from you. Christ your Redeemer promises you rest today. Rest for your souls. Rest and refreshment for travelers who grow weary on their journey. And finally, eternal rest in the promised land of heaven. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”