Labor Day is a legal holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September in the United States, Puerto Rico, the Canal Zone, and the Virgin Islands. The celebration of Labor Day, in honor of the working class, was first suggested by Peter J. McGuire, founder of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. In 1884, the Knights of Labor held a parade on the first Monday of September and passed a resolution to hold all future parades on that day and to designate the day as Labor Day. Ten years later, the U.S. Congress made the day a legal holiday.When we consider other federal holidays in America, we realize that tomorrow’s observance is unique. Some holidays celebrate an individual (Martin Luther King, Jr., Presidents’ Day, Columbus Day, and Christmas) or remember those involved in the military (Memorial Day or Veterans Day) or a notable event like Independence Day, Thanksgiving, or New Years’ Day. But Labor Day is not connected to a particular person or a significant occasion. Instead, Labor Day is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. This yearly tribute celebrates contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.
Tomorrow is a holiday honoring work. In honoring the working class of our nation, we are also recognizing that rest is a good thing. Jesus knew about work; his occupation was carpentry, working with wood, perhaps even making wooden yokes. Jesus knew about rest also. He knew refreshment was necessary in being productive. Work can be exhausting, and rest was necessary to be effective. Maximum performance cannot be achieved without rest, which brings us to our passage today.
Matthew was writing to a Jewish audience. That fact needs to be considered when understanding the context of the writing. Our passage is unique to Matthew’s gospel. While many of the same events, teachings and miracles can be found in Matthew, Mark and Luke, the teaching found in our passage today is found only in the Gospel of Matthew.
Also it is important to note that Jesus was finding a hearing among the common people. The educated and devoutly religious, such as the Scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees sought to challenge Jesus at every turn. Yet Jesus said that the wise and learned were prevented from understanding. Their faith was in the Law, the written code of behavior that governed their every move. Theirs was a religion of works; their goodness was based on what they did or did not do. Their lifestyle was regulated by the “Thou shalt nots” of Scripture. The Pharisees even sought to increase the impact of the Law by creating additional laws for the people to follow, in hopes of being better. Their religion was not relational; it was legalistic. They placed pleasing God above loving God.
And the common people had difficulty living up to that standard. Many were illiterate and uneducated; they did not have the luxury of memorizing volumes in order to be a better person. Instead, they had to work. Yet they also wanted to be good. The remedy offered from the learned Scribes was to be like them, to follow the Law even closer, to do more. The quest for understanding God and feeling worth from the Creator was endless. The more they did, the more distant they actually felt. The Law, the shoulds and should nots, were weighing them down.
To the Jew, religion was a lifestyle of endless rules. A person lived his/her life in a forest of regulations which dictated every action. Jesus spoke to people desperately trying to find God and desperately trying to be good, who were finding the tasks impossible and who were driven to despair and weariness. He said, “Come to me all who are exhausted.” His invitation was to those who were exhausted in the search for truth. It was Jesus’ claim that the draining search for God ends in oneself. The way to know God is not by mental search, but by giving attention to Jesus Christ, for in him we see what God is like. (Commentary on Matthew vol. 2. William Barclay. Philadelphia: Westminster Press. 1975. p. 15-16)
The same is true today. Many are searching for fulfillment, for meaning. Plenty of people willingly tell others how to live, pointing out inadequacies of others, which sounds like what the Pharisees were doing in Jesus’ day. I too believe that we are to set the bar high, that the standard of Christian behavior should be exemplary. But I also realize that we are human, creatures which are prone to err, beings which are finite.
As a preacher, my role is not to impose my belief system on you, saying believe like me or you’re wrong. My role is to point you to Jesus and to encourage you to establish your own relationship with him. Because of your relationship with Christ, you will act differently toward others. The love of God extended to each of us is a life-changing love, one that moves us to action. But the actions should not be our gods; the actions are not what makes us good. Being created in the image of God makes us good. Actually in Genesis 1:31, after the creation of humanity, the author records that God saw that it was very good.
For some, the search continues in the intellect, probing the minds of the great thinkers of the centuries, hoping to find a kernel of truth that will justify an existence. Proof of God cannot be established by a theorem. God’s existence cannot be ascertained by a formula. Faith is not concrete; it is abstract. Seeking to touch God physically, to place your hand on the eternal, to see the infinite is futile. It will be as exhausting as trying to find fulfillment in achievements and checklists. In actuality, many are looking for God in all the wrong places.
So to those who are exhausted in their quest for fulfillment, Jesus says, “Come to me all who are tired of trying to live up to another’s standards. Come to me all who have searched high and low for truth and are empty-handed. Come to me if you are tired of trying to measure up and earn grace. Come to me those who are weary and burdened because of pressure, stress, and “can’t-get-it-right-itis.” Come to me those who wish you could be perfect and who keep trying to be so. Come to me those who have pulled yourself up before, but simply are fatigued at the thought of having to do it again. Come to me if you are tired of the rat race, if you are weakened with troubles, if you are burned out. Come to me if you are irritated from fighting a losing battle, if your skies are all gray, if you have lost hope. Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden down, and I’ll give you rest.”
Rest. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? For us Americans who are overworked, who try to squeeze another hour into the day, who burn the candles at both ends and still have more stuff to do, we need some rest. Given the stress of our worlds, it is no wonder that the leisure industry has boomed in the past sixty years. For those of us who try so hard to do good, who want to change the world, who want to leave a mark, or make a trail for others to follow, rest surely sounds good. For those of us who find ourselves in that category, it is comforting to know that Christ is the prescription for our compulsiveness and the elixir for our control issues. We don’t have to save the world; we can’t.
For me, I find comfort in these verses, because it gives a strong dose of perspective. Jesus is the one who is giving the rest to us, the refreshment of knowing that we are ok simply because we are loved by him. We cannot do enough to earn that acceptance.
Jesus explained that fact by calling us to take his yoke upon us. Since yokes represent work, how can we find rest? We all need rest, not more work. The rest which Jesus offered is not escape from work or other demands of life. Jesus himself did not escape the toil, pain, conflicts, all that makes life hard. But he did possess that which enabled him to live abundantly, joyfully, and triumphantly. He found rest in the midst of such a life and offers that rest to any who come to him. For us, rest should be the overcoming of fear and anxiety, uncertainty and meaninglessness in the joy and peace of God’s very presence in Jesus Christ. It is the security of one who knows the forgiveness of sins and finds acceptance in the family of God.
Evan West has been in church all his life; he has heard Bible stories about Jesus as long as he can remember. He has attended Sunday School, Vacation Bible School and multiple camps, but until this summer, he had not made the decision to follow Jesus as his Savior. Evan made his public profession of faith while at Generate Students Mission Camp at Covenant College with Emily Harbin, our former Director of Youth and Children’s Ministries, and joined our church on Emily’s last Sunday. When I talked to Evan about why he decided to make his decision at camp, he said, “It was the setting.” Evan could have made this all-important decision on a number of occasions, but the bottom line was that it always had to be his decision. And now today, we can celebrate that he has made the conscious choice to follow Jesus as his Savior. There was nothing that Evan could do to earn his salvation; no amount of work would have awarded him with redemption. All he had to do was to say “yes” to a relationship with Jesus.
On Labor Day, we are honoring the working class of America. But in the Kingdom of God, we are all workers; there are no blue collar or white collar workers in the Kingdom. We are all equal with individual gifts and talents. We are all uniquely called to work, but we are also called to rest, not seeking to shirk responsibility, not looking for another to carry our weight, but instead to come to Jesus and rest. This rest is a rejuvenation of our soul, recognizing that Jesus is yoked with us. We are joining Jesus in the work; sometimes we confuse the reality by thinking that Jesus is joining us. He is doing the work; we have joined him.
The rest we can find in Christ comes because of the great love extended to us by grace. No amount of work we do can merit God’s goodness to us. Instead, it is that same grace that offers rest to the weary, refreshment to the laden, rejuvenation to the stressed. Thanks be to God for the privilege of joining Jesus in the work of the Kingdom. And on this Labor Day weekend, I encourage you to remember that we all need rest.
Join me at the table in accepting the invitation from Jesus who said, “Come to me all who labor and I’ll give you rest.”