Have you ever told anyone to lighten up? You may say it in exasperation with someone who is majoring on minors or who is being nitpicky. Said in those circumstances, there is a certain tone to the voice. I remember trying to tell my then first grader the letters he was printing didn’t have to be picture perfect. I said to him, “Lighten up, Christopher. You’re doing great!” Said that way, I had a different tone to my voice. It was the tone of the encourager. In this morning’s text, we see Jesus telling two different crowds, in essence, to lighten up.
The setting here is that John the Baptist has been put in prison. In that time of doubting and forced idleness, he sent his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are You the Promised One, or should we look for someone else?” In that moment of doubting, Jesus gave John his highest praise. He then offered a critique of his generation. In Jesus’ day, as in ours, there were people who were critical and just couldn’t be made happy. The powers that be didn’t know what to make of Jesus, so nothing He did was satisfactory to them. Jesus said, “If I radiate joy, you don’t like that. If I am somber and serious, you don’t like that either.”
It is worth noting Jesus wasn’t particularly concerned with what the religious establishment thought of Him. He would welcome any individual who would come to Him to learn more from and about Him, such as Nicodemus; but He knew the establishment, that day’s religious leaders, never would be won by Him. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “Lighten up, guys. Nothing I do is going to make you happy.” He said, “Wisdom is proved right by her deeds.” As He told John’s disciples, “Look at what I do to determine the validity of My wisdom.”
The establishment didn’t have anything positive to say about Jesus, but the common people heard Him gladly. The establishment could be called the wise and the learned of their day, but they were not the target of Jesus’ ministry. He reached out to the ordinary people who were being squashed by the oppressive religious system. For Jesus, this was a part of God’s plan that was an opportunity for praise.
He said, “Lighten up,” to those who were oppressed. “Come unto Me. Let Me lighten your load. Don’t try so hard to be religious. Don’t get tied in knots over what the law says you can and can’t do.”
He was saying, “I’m not so much about what I can get out of you. I’m more about giving you what you really need.” If you’re trying to be religious, you can’t help but wonder if you’ve done enough, given enough, satisfied God’s requirements. Instead of being judgmental toward those who are weary and burdened, as if they’ve somehow done something wrong, instead of telling them they’re not good enough, Jesus invited them to come to Him so He could give them rest. The word that is translated rest also can mean “relief” or “relaxation.” Isn’t it interesting that a key to doing anything well is to relax?
I was at my brother’s several years ago, and he was letting me hit some practice golf balls in his backyard. His townhouse was backed by woods, and there was no danger that I could hurt anything. Plus, I was using foam rubber practice balls. He showed me how to take my stance, then he said, “Keep your lead arm straight.” My problem, though, was that I was keeping my arm stiff instead of straight. With my arm stiff, all I was doing was tearing up his back yard. The balls weren’t doing what they were supposed to do either.
Are you walking stiff, trying to please God? Lighten up and follow Jesus.