Overheard on the Porch: Sweet Tea, Cicadas, and Freedom
"For freedom did Christ set us free: stand fast therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage." Galatians 5:1
If we were sitting on my back porch, drinking sweet tea while waiting on the midday heat to wane, and this verse was mentioned, I would tell you that Galatians is one of my favorite books of the Bible, so I’ve done some research there many times. I would probably tell you the context of the verse, including the culture of the people of Galatia, and how Galatians 5:1 is basically a type of “thesis statement” for the entire book. Paul was, after all, trying to explain why legalistic living would never save a soul (and worse: it might actually condemn it). We could sit and exegete each of those words, and what it meant then and the implications for now.
We could remind ourselves that humans will live for either God or the world – one or the other – and there is no in-between (Romans 6:15-18, Matthew 6:24).
We could chat how oxen are hitched to a load with the yoke; how they are trained from a young age to shoulder it, and as they grow are given heavier burdens to pull. We might even talk about how different yokes are used for different tasks, and how the best yokes are the ones that fit correctly, allow the oxen some freedom of movement, while also able to provide gentle yet firm guidance. We would learn that oxen who are without a yoke for brief period of time (as little as 4-6 months) can forget all that they have learned and will have to be re-trained. We would be warned that the unkind trainer who over-burdens or overworks a young ox, or who beats or scolds the oxen harshly, will end up with an ox who is belligerent, wild, and unruly – perhaps beyond remedy. But, the trainer who is gentle, patient, clear, and consistent will mold oxen that are content in their work, who feel mutual respect and a sort of co-laboring fulfillment as they work with the farmer in accomplishing the tasks before them. They do not fight for what they need – water, food, rest, and safety – because they already know that the shepherd-trainer will provide these things for them. We could talk about how the good shepherd starts training from in front – leading the early learners; then he moves to walk alongside the ox as the ox becomes more familiar in his work, sometimes hitching the learning ox to a more experienced ox. Eventually, the shepherd is free to walk behind the oxen, merely calling out directions as needed.
I would probably stop talking at that point to listen to the cicadas’ loud interruption and take a sip of my tea. Then, maybe we would talk about Jeremiah (that famously dramatic prophet) who once prophesied to the nation of Judah while wearing a yoke, signaling the servitude to come under the Babylonian king (Jeremiah 27). And I would laugh and say, “Poor Jeremiah! God was always asking him to do some seriously crazy stuff!” I’d go on to talk about how the false prophet, Hananiah, took the wooden yoke off of Jeremiah and broke it in order to avoid the truth of servitude foretold by Jeremiah – simply because he didn’t want to believe it. We could be equally amazed at Jeremiah’s response: that because of the stubbornness of those who would not submit to God's plan to place them under Babylonian rule, the wooden yoke would be replaced by a yoke of iron (Jeremiah 28).
Then…maybe we both would sit for a moment of silence and realize that refusing the easy yoke that God has originally ordained for us only makes way for the harsh, heavy, iron-laden yoke of hard oppression - servitude to the world's heavy burden.
And then, we’d realize that the conversation has come full circle. We are back where we started: we all serve something…God or this world…there is no in-between…and the results are starkly different.
Jesus offers an easy yoke attached a light burden (Matthew 11:29-30) and he reminds us that He is a gentle, meek, Good Shepherd. Is there a yoke? Is there work to be done? Absolutely! Following Christ has never been the antithesis to work. The difference is in the product: service to the world produces only death, and service to God produces freedom.
The Good Shepherd knows His sheep, He calls them by name and He takes care of them. He understands that they cannot be overworked, or else they die. He knows that they are capable of accomplishing great tasks - within the confines of what it means to be the oxen He created them to be.
In our desire to train and encourage Christ followers to be strong and courageous, we can err on the side of over-burdening and overworking God’s flock. We forget that although the call of God will require work, it doesn’t require that humans work themselves to spiritual death. And that’s exactly what happens when the “doing” for God is divorced from the “being” God's.
So much of what makes the Good Shepherd good, is the fact that He knows who we are – especially when we have forgotten. He knows the yoke is easy and the burden is light even when we (like the Pharisees) have added our burdensome, legalistic trappings to His original load. No wonder it is so difficult for us to remember freedom - to comprehend and know what Paul means when he says “Woah. Wait a minute! Let’s be clear, because this isn’t rocket science: God has set us free, because He wants us to be free! We can stand in that freedom! We don't have to go back to that iron yoke attached to that heavy burden of the world! That’s crazy talk!” (Ok, he didn’t say it like that. But, if Paul were sitting with you and me on my back porch, he would TOTALLY set his sweet tea down, lean forward in his chair, and make sure he spoke those words loud and clear.)
We often forget what it looks like under a yoke that allows freedom, co-laboring, patience, gentleness, and mutual understanding. We forget it, because we have a world full of harsh task-masters who are eager to strap us with iron and work us till we die inside…till we know nothing more than this hard labor.
So, if the Southern Summer Sun had not chased us into the cover of air conditioning and shade, our conversation would probably turn to the simple, yet substantial freedom that following Christ has worked for us and in us:
The simple freedom to be human - not invincible, all-knowing, or all-perfect. (Psalm 103:14)
The ability to feel heartache, and to sit and cry about that for a moment…or two…or ten. (Psalm 130:1)
The freedom to need a friend, to need support, and to admit when we are disappointed and sad. (Matt. 26:36-46)
The safety of bringing our cares and concerns, our worries and fears, to a very real God who really hears. (Psalm 142:2)
The ability to ask for wisdom and direction we need when we need it, confidently knowing that God doesn’t hold us in contempt for not having all the answers. (James 1:5)
The ability to ask for another way, if possible, so that we don’t have to suffer, along with the ability to accept whatever may come. (Matt. 26:39)
For the strength to face whatever seems to be hard for us in this moment. (Isaiah 41:10)
To take a nap. (1 Kings 19:5)
The freedom to make a mistake and to return to Him again…and again…and again and again. (John 21:15-17)
The ability to come to Him with our “why, Lord?” (John 11:21 & 32)
The freedom to not have all the answers and to ask Him for direction. (Isaiah 30:21)
And so many others…
Perhaps our time together chatting about this verse would end kinda like it started – those rude cicadas would still be interrupting us - and our glasses may be slightly less full - but maybe we would have realize that our Good Shepherd is really good. And in His goodness, He’s provided all that we would need to learn how to bear the easy yoke and do the work; we may have realized anew that we can trust that He has led us, walked beside us, and will continue to call out our orders from behind. Maybe we would have realized that we don’t have to go back to entangled, legalistic burdens we’ve picked up along Life’s journey – the ones that are only good to trip us up and trap us in the miry mud. Maybe we would have realized that we don’t have to stay under the heavy exhaustion and brokenness that serving the world brings. Maybe we can lay that iron yoke down, stop struggling under the load of shame, guilt, unholy perfectionism, and harsh condemnation for ourselves and others, and start to learn a new way…
a lighter way…