Sermon for Evensong on the Nineteenth Sunday after Trinity, 11th October 2015

Joshua 5:13-6:20; Matt. 11:20-30
In our second lesson tonight, we heard: ‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you’. (Matt. 11:28). These are the first of the so-called ‘Comfortable Words’, ‘comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him’, in the Communion service in the Book of Common Prayer – you’ll find them in your little Prayer Books at p. 252. We use them sometimes in our 8 o’clock traditional-language communion service.
The Comfortable Words are, like a lot of passages in the Book of Common Prayer, a really neat summary of some of the most important passages in the Bible: after ‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden’, there is arguably the best-known verse in the whole of the Bible, ‘So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life’, John 3:16. Have a look at the other Comfortable Words on p.252 as well.
Huge amounts of meaning and theology are in every one of those passages. But let’s stay with the particular ‘comfortable words’ from our lesson tonight, ‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you’. They are rather a contrast from what Jesus said just before, about being frustrated with the fact that his message had not been listened to in various places, and his ‘deeds of power’ had not been properly taken account of. ‘A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country …’ [Matt. 13].
Jesus threatens that all these places where he has not been properly received will come to a bad end in the Final Judgment. The whole idea of wiping out entire cities is a hallmark of the Old Testament idea of Holy War, an example of which we heard about in our first lesson, the story of the sack of Jericho. This story in Joshua is obviously not a piece of literal military history, but is more symbolic, showing an instance where God has been present, God has revealed himself, has given a revelation.
‘Behold there stood a man over against him with his sword drawn: and Joshua went unto him, and said unto him, Art thou for us, or for our adversaries?And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the Lord am I now come. And Joshua fell on his face to the earth, and did worship.’

He said, ‘Nay, (No)’; ‘No’ goes with, ‘[Are you] for our adversaries?’ The answer is, no, he’s not. He’s for us. He is, perhaps, an angel of the Lord, some kind of messenger from God.

In the story of the priests and the trumpets, the ark of the Covenant, it was seven priests, seven trumpets, going round the besieged city for seven days. The number seven was regarded as a numinous number, a magic number, in the ancient world. That idea goes back earlier than the Old Testament, for example to the Ugaritic civilisation which flourished from about 6,000 BC as well. It’s all highly symbolic.
‘When ye hear the sound of the trumpet, all the people shall shout with a great shout; and the wall of the city shall fall down flat.’ And the walls did fall down. We’re not talking about a literal historical account of the fall of Jericho – although Jericho could well have been sacked at the time when the Israelites crossed the Jordan; we just don’t know. The archaeological evidence isn’t conclusive one way or the other, apparently. The real message is that God showed his hand; there had been a revelation.
Today’s Comfortable Words point to a rather different revelation from the one involving the angel’s presence before the battle for Jericho. ‘Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you’. ‘Comfortable’ is a word whose meaning has evolved a bit since 1549 when Cranmer originally drafted the Book of Common Prayer. It really means ‘strengthening’ or ‘encouraging’, from the Latin verb confortare, which comes from the adjective fortis, ‘strong’: so it means to make strong, to strengthen, to build up. ‘I will refresh you.’
So these are words which build you up: these are refreshing words. Strengthening your faith. I also thought about about the invitation to confession which comes a bit earlier in the Communion service. ‘Draw near with faith, and take this holy Sacrament to your comfort’.
That ‘comfort’ also brings in the idea of a sacrament, a symbol. ‘Take this holy Sacrament to your comfort’. A ‘sacrament’ is what the Catechism in the Prayer Book describes as ‘An outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.’
‘Take this holy Sacrament to your comfort.’ There is God’s grace around. Just as the captain of the hosts of the Lord, the angel, appeared to Joshua, we may encounter God in all around us.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote:
‘Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes, …’
Or George Herbert’s hymn,
‘Teach me, my God and King, In all things thee to see’.

So in the Comfortable Words we are reminded of God, of what Jesus said and how he asked us to bring him into our lives.

Come unto me … Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’
On one level, we can simply read this passage and feel good. What’s not to like about a Christianity whose ‘yoke is easy’ and whose ‘burden is light’? It’s not tough. Church is fun. ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’.

But even as I say these things, and as you hear them, surely they don’t really make sense. Being a Christian may be – and is – full of joy; and in that we meet with fellow Christians and share each other’s burdens, so perhaps those burdens are lighter than they would otherwise have been, if we had not been members of the church together. But nevertheless, following Jesus can still be pretty tough.
Jesus calls upon us to make sacrifices, calling to mind his supreme sacrifice for us. As Godfrey preached this morning, about the rich young ruler, Jesus calls on us to give up our riches, to share with those who have none: to care for our neighbours – even if our neighbours are as strange and alien as Jews were to the Good Samaritan.
Even today, in many places in the world, being a Christian could be life-threatening. Just as, so often, Jesus said things which appear to be contrary – ‘The first shall be last, and the last shall be first,’ is the quintessential one – so ‘my yoke is easy and my burden is light’ might also seem to be counterintuitive.
Jesus is saying that to follow him involves total commitment and may involve sacrifice of various types. But as St Paul has pointed out in his Letter to the Romans, [chapter 8], however awfully we may suffer, none of it matters.
‘As it is written, for thy sake we are killed all the day long;

We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors

Through him that loved us.

For I am persuaded, that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come,

Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
That’s why Jesus’ yoke is easy, and his burden light. Ultimately, whatever we have to suffer, He will make comfortable for us. So let us look again at what we have to do, in order to take that yoke upon us, to lift the burden and really follow Jesus. If we do, even if we don’t get the captain of the heavenly host alongside us, God will be there. We will be comforted.