Read Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 here.
Who are you following?
In the story of Peter Pan, the lost boys play follow the leader in Neverland. Anyone can lead, and as the rest of them follow, they sing,
“We’re following the leader, the leader, the leader, we’re following the leader wherever he may go. Tee dum, tee dee, tee diddly oh de day, tee dum, tee dee, it’s part of the game we play…”
It’s fun to see where that day’s leader will go. It’s not as much fun for the little guy in the back trying to keep up. In the story, the leader is appointed by Peter Pan. When we played this ourselves as kids, the leader was often the oldest or the biggest or the loudest person.
As adults, we sometimes play follow the leader by following appointed or elected leaders. We also follow the richest or the loudest or the most beautiful or the most confident people.
Of course, following Jesus as we walk through life is not as simple as a children’s game, and yet Jesus encourages childlike faith. “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Jesus encourages childlike trust in him when he says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” But it’s more than just rest. It’s rest with responsibility. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me.”
Earlier in our reading for today, Jesus compares the people of Israel to children who are complaining about not getting their way. He says they’re “…like children in the marketplace calling out…” (Matt. 11:16). The Message version puts it like this:
“How can I account for this generation? The people have been like spoiled children whining to their parents, ‘We wanted to skip rope, and you were always too tired; we wanted to talk, but you were always too busy.’ John came fasting and they called him crazy. I came feasting and they called me a lush, a friend of the riffraff. Opinion polls don’t count for much . . . the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” (Matt. 11:16-19)
Or as the NIV says,
“Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” The reality of who we’re following will come through in our actions.
Jesus calls us to follow wisdom, God’s wisdom, and says that on this path, there is rest and peace, in contrast to the way they have been following. Jesus uses the analogy of a yoke. It’s an egg-celent analogy. A yoke ties two oxen together to reduce the burden of pulling a plow or a wagon. By working together, the two oxen help each other. But Jesus is alluding to a more oppressive yoking, the yoke of legalism and tradition, and trying to earn salvation by being good enough, and complicit enough.
Who are we following? To what or whom are we yoked? Are we trying to be good enough, smart enough, right enough, beautiful enough, rich enough, proper enough? By accepting the forgiveness and grace that God offers us through faith in Jesus Christ, we can let go of those burdens and find rest.
But how do we keep on that path with Jesus as we walk through life? That is the challenge. Jesus gives us the answer. Though the yoke captures our attention, he also says,
“learn from me.” Humbly accept that we don’t know all there is to know, or that we have made wrong interpretations or wrong applications and will need to keep asking and keep learning. One thing we can be sure to know is that we don’t know all there is to know.
There are lots of ways to look at rest, but today I offer two.
Two Ways of Thinking About Rest
One is to think of rest as a pause. The Greek word for rest actually sounds like pause: anapauso because this is where we get the word pause. It means to take a break, to stop.
Borrowing from the Harvard leadership guru Ron Heifetz, we might think about this like taking time in the balcony to get a break from the dance floor. Time in the balcony is time to catch your breath and step back and get a broader perspective or a higher perspective, to reorient and ask, “What’s going on here?”
Jesus did this. Jesus frequently went off by himself to pray, and he encouraged his disciples to do this as well (E.g. Mark 6:31). We need time to step back and refresh daily, weekly, periodically, to take a breath and reorient and ask God, “What’s going on here? How can I be better? How can I be better at helping others?”
Another way to think about rest is trust. When we play follow the leader, those who are following have to trust the leader to steer them around obstacles and to keep them going in the right direction. Following and trusting Jesus can be kind of like walking in the dark.
I’m reading a book by theologian Barbara Brown Taylor called Learning to Walk in the Dark. I started reading it back in March when we first started dealing with all the changes from Covid-19. I expected that Taylor would be talking about walking in the dark figuratively, and she does, but it turns out she’s done a study of our relationship with the actual darkness that occurs when the sun goes down, or we turn the lights out, or go into a cave or a closet. Have you noticed that we can see once our eyes adjust?
One of her first discoveries is that when we stop being afraid of the dark and refrain from obliterating the darkness with perpetual lights, we find the beauty of the more subtle lights, like the stars and the moon, and the reflection of those lights in the eyes of people and animals.
I can remember going camping as a kid and spending time looking up at the stars at night. We went up in the mountains away from the lights and smog of Los Angeles, and from there we could see the Milky Way. Taylor points out that there are fewer and fewer places where there’s no light pollution, which made me realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve been somewhere that’s dark enough to see the Milky Way. Have you seen it? (My husband Rob says it’s right next to the Three Musketeers.)
As part of Taylor’s endeavor to learn to walk in the dark, she goes to the Organ Cave in West Virginia where there are tunnels that go for miles and miles. In the public parts of the cave, there are walkways with railings and lights, but she goes with an experienced caver who has gotten permission to go beyond the public caverns and into the parts without lights and pathways. The guide literally teaches her how to walk in the total darkness where there’s not even the faintest glimmer of light. She has to learn to trust the guide, who also teaches her to learn to overcome her fear and learn to trust her other senses.
Jesus calls us to find rest by trusting him to guide us through the darkness when we cannot see. And let’s be honest, this is really much more our reality than we like to admit. That’s why Jesus and the angels and the prophets have to say, “Don’t be afraid” so many times. It’s why we hold tightly to verses like Proverbs 3:5 that says to trust in the Lord with all our hearts and to lean not on our own understanding. Or this from Isaiah 45:
I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places,
so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name (Isaiah 45:3).
Maybe it’s obvious that the way to keep walking with Jesus in the balcony and on the dance floor and in the dark is through faith and humble prayer. There are a lot of ways to pray, but let’s look at two of them: praying alone, and praying with other people.
Praying alone simply means talking to God. It can be anywhere, anytime, with or without words. To me the form doesn’t matter as much as the function. To God.
Hi, God. Help me out here. What do I do? What shall I say? When? How? Thanks. Wow.
Wow can be shock or amazement. Sometimes it’s my response when God says, “Just be quiet and listen.” That’s what God told Jeremiah in Lamentations 3:26-28 (NLT):
So it is good to wait quietly for salvation from the Lord. And it is good for people to submit at an early age to the yoke of his discipline: Let them sit alone in silence beneath the Lord’s demands.
Praying with other people is a bit trickier. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s journey into the darkness, she had to listen to the advice of someone with more experience in caves. We need to consult with wiser people, too.
Proverbs 28:26 Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool, but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
It’s really easy to go through life never having conversations with other people about spiritual things, or about the bigger, deeper realities of life and faith, but we need to have people we trust enough to do this. Whether it’s a significant other or a good friend, or small group or a counselor, there need to be times where we can say to someone,
here’s what I’m hearing from God and what I think it means. What do you think about that? Or here’s what I’m struggling with, what do you think? And it is gold if that friend then says, “Let’s pray about that.” I am so thankful that I have several people in my life who will do that.
Who are you following? Are you spending time in the balcony or are you always on the dance floor? Are you walking in the dark or are you afraid of the dark?
Jesus says, “Come away with me and learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”
Keep on praying. Spend time with Jesus alone and in consultation with friends who also follow Jesus.
Dancing with Jesus is much more than fun and games. It’s a beautiful life.
Loving God, we need your rest. We need Jesus to teach us, and keep teaching us. We confess that we have thought we knew what was best for ourselves. We have thought we knew better than you. We have held on to our pride instead of humbly asking you for help. Forgive us. Thank you for your patience with us. Thank you for your gracious forgiveness. May your love prevail. May your wisdom shine through our actions. May we find rest for our souls. Thank you for Jesus.
 Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, “A Survival Guide for Leaders,” Harvard Business Review, 2002 https://hbr.org/2002/06/a-survival-guide-for-leaders
 Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, (Harper One, 2014), Kindle Edition, Chapter 6: Entering the Stone.