Cast thy burden upon the Lord and he shall sustain thee (Psalm 55.22)

We don’t hear the word “burden” very often these days, do we? Perhaps we associate it with the expression “beast of burden” but, for me, it is a word which always reminds me of that wonderful work The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, written just a few miles from here and featuring many of the features of Bedfordshire: Ampthill Hill, Bedford Plain, Houghton House and a number of others.

In the very opening chapter of that work we meet Christian, with a great burden on his back. Within just six pages he had fallen into the Slough of Despond. As Bunyan says: “Because of the burden that was on his back he began to sink in the mire”.

That burden, carried by Christian on his journey, is an image which recurs throughout The Pilgrim’s Progress and it’s depicted in both the narration and the illustrations as an actual physical burden which Christian has on his back. The only way in which Christian is able to shed that burden is through salvation by way of Jesus Christ.

That’s why that text is so poignant. It recognises that we can’t carry our burdens alone: we need the Lord to sustain us. It’s much more, as the saying goes, than “a trouble shared is a trouble halved”. What it says is that we can actually draw strength and sustenance from the Lord to carry on, to shoulder the weight, to climb out of the mire.

We symbolically recognise this here every Good Friday when, from the bottom of the hill, we each take a stone to represent our own burdens or those of somebody we love or care for and we carry those stones up the hill. What do we do when we reach the top? We lay them at the foot of the cross.

Whatever our burden is, there’s not a lot of escape from it in this world, is there? It’s no use trying to flee from it or trying to shut it out by clinging to material luxuries - we are liable to lose them at any time and even if we keep them they often go stale on us. In the end comes death, which takes everything away, good or ill. So there’s really nothing in this world which we can cling to in order to shut out our burdens.

The re’s only one way to overcome them and that is to lay them at the foot of the cross - to unite with God, to be filled with God’s divinity and fullness.

Clinging to God actually liberates us. God himself steps in and helps us to carry our burden - even, in effect, carrying it for us.

That’s why holy people can endure the most appalling torments and privations which would crush a lesser person: it’s because they are not carrying their burdens alone. God is in them, carrying their burdens for them. Once we reach out to God, his strength and power can come in and help us.

Cast thy burden upon the Lord: whatever cares, afflictions, trials there are, lay them upon him - and he shall sustain thee: he’ll bear you and me and our burdens. What a glorious promise to anybody tempted or afflicted.

That text comes from Psalm 55, which includes the line “O for the wings of a dove”, the opening words of a solo from Mendelsson’s Hear my Prayer made famous by choirboy Earnest Lough’s recording from 1927. If you look at that Psalm, you come to realise that there aren’t many like it in which the writer spells out his misery in quite such detail. The re is panic, anguish, fear and trembling; there are terrors of death. The writer’s language is almost exhausted. The only relief, as he says in the Psalm, is to look to the Lord; to leave it to him in his own way and time.

Remember those words from What a friend we have in Jesus? “O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer. Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Jesus only is our refuge, take it to the Lord in prayer”.

I said that we don’t hear the word “burden” very often these days but it actually appears in the Bible 49 times! Here are some in similar vein to that text: “Praise be to the Lord, to God our saviour, who daily bears our burdens” (Psalm 68.19). “I removed the burden from their shoulders” (Psalm 81.6). “In that day their burden shall be lifted from their shoulders” (Isaiah 10.27).

The same message comes through loud and clear in the New Testament: “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything by prayer and petition with thanksgiving present your requests to God” (Philippians 4.6). “Cast all your anxiety on the Lord because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5.7) and those wonderful words from Jesus himself: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11.28).

I spoke earlier about some of the local places appearing in The Pilgrims Progress these include Sundon Hills, where the John Bunyan Trail begins. Interestingly Sundon Park Road appears on the back of a little book which is called My Burden is Light. It’s a free book containing inspirational words from the Scriptures and, as it says in its introduction: “ The Christian road is often far from easy. What this book provides is unique help in learning to be calm and strong in very difficult circumstances and in finding in Jesus our Lord a lifelong tower of strength. As our Lord’s word is received, we discover increasingly that we have a wonderful friend”.

Images of burdens also appear in the Canterbury Tales. The re each of the pilgrims reveals, either through outward appearance or in the telling of tales, the burden of sin which he or she must forsake before gaining entrance into heavenly Jerusalem .

I hope you can see a consistent theme coming through from the Scriptures these other texts.

I’m going to conclude with an extract from The Pilgrims Progress:

‘The highway up which Christian was to go was fenced on either side with a wall and that wall was called salvation. Up this way, therefore, did burdened Christian run but not without great difficulty because of the load on his back. He ran thus until he came to a place somewhat ascending and upon that place stood a cross and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre. So I saw in my dream that just as Christian came up to the cross his burden loosed from off his shoulders and fell from off his back and began to tumble and so continued to do until it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in and I saw it no more. The n was Christian glad and lightsome and said with a merry heart ‘He hath given me rest by his sorrow and life by his death’. The n he stood still a while to look and wonder, for it was very surprising to him that at the sight of the cross his burden should be eased. He looked therefore and looked again, even until the springs which were in his head sent the waters down his cheeks, saying ‘Thus far did I come, laden with my sin, nor could ought ease the grief that I was in until I came hither. What a place is this. Must here be the beginning of my bliss. Must here the burden fall from off my back. Must here the strings that bound it to me crack. Blessed cross, blessed sepulchre. Blessed rather be the man that there was put to shame for me”’.

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire June 2016

This sermon was originally delivered in the church of St Mary the Virgin, Maulden, Bedfordshire on 24 June, 2012