Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Gift of Freedom and the Good News of Christ

Preached Sunday, July 3, 2011

Scripture readings:
Leviticus 25:8-24; Romans 8:1-11

We cannot understand what it means to be a Christian unless we know what it means to be free. Freedom is not the most common word used in the Bible to describe a Christian, but freedom (in the Bible) is just as important as any other word to describe who we are and what God intends us to be. The word freedom is just as important as any other word in the Bible to help us understand the Good News of Christ and new life that comes from Christ.

The good news of Jesus dying on the cross for the sins of the world, and his rising from the dead to defeat the power of sin and death, is God’s fulfillment of a promise he made to the world many, many times through the people of Israel. It is the central promise of the Old Testament. And the promise has always been about freedom.

In the Garden of Eden, our human race rebelled against God in the desire to be our own gods and goddesses. It was a rebellion to make ourselves smart enough to be independent from God. When we did that, we altered our very nature, and we became a hereditary race of rebels and failed gods. Every new generation has been born with their parents’ addiction to this ancient rebellion. The patterns of human life show our slavery to this addiction. And yet, in that same garden, God promised that there would come a time when we, in the human race, would be set free from this slavery.

The promise was brief, and simple; and it was made by God to the devil, strangely enough, who had taken the form of a snake. God promised that a time would come when a son of Adam and Eve would crush the devil and his power. God said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15) A human would be hurt and, in being hurt, would kill the devil.

Jesus was hurt by the devil, working through human powers, on the cross. Jesus was hurt to the death. But he rose alive, and he can no longer be hurt or defeated.

The devil is the defeated one, and we can rightly call him a dead man walking. The devil and the rebellion he led are defeated and in retreat.

Jesus in his hurt, and in his rising, sets us free from the devil, and from sin and death. Jesus plants his Holy Spirit in those who trust in him, and the Spirit has the authority and power to plant the sacrifice and victory of Jesus in our heart.

Through what Christ has done for a fallen world, and for each one of us, the Holy Spirit has the authority to write our personal declaration of independence from the power of the devil, and from the power of sin, and death: and this is exactly what he has done. This is the meaning of what Paul writes to the Christians in Rome: “Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of Life has set me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2)

In the Gospel of John (8:36) Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed.” And so, if we belong to Jesus, we ought to know what it means, and what it feels like, to be free.

But freedom is confusing, and sometimes the rebel nature, lurking within us all, jumps at the chance to be confused about freedom. Our confusion about freedom gives us an excuse to go our own way. There are so many advantages that come from the excuse of confusion.

Sometimes freedom seems to be the very opposite of what Christians are about. Christians seem to be all about rules and not about freedom.

If you think about it though, freedom needs rules. The old radio news-man, the late Paul Harvey, would say, “Freedom without self-discipline is anarchy.”

My grandpa Evans had an insight into the danger of being confused about freedom. He had a saying he used, when someone passed him on the highway in dangerous circumstances. If someone passed him on a curve where no one could possibly see far enough ahead to know what was coming, or if someone passed him on a straight-a-way where anybody could see the cars approaching without the room to pass, he would say, “That man is in a hurry to his own funeral.”

I drive fast, but I am very cautious about passing. But we all know people who, in the name of freedom, are in a hurry to their own funeral.

The sin, and the defeat, and the slavery that came out of Eden began when the first humans decided to set up shop as their own little gods and goddesses. They wanted the failed freedom of being in charge, and of being at the center of their own lives. (Genesis 3:5-6)

Everybody is tempted this way. Some people try to pretend they are their own little gods and goddesses by living like they are in a hurry to their own funerals. Or they are in a hurry to the funeral of their relationships with the people who love them and count on them. They would rather have what they want than have real love. They are in a hurry to kill relationships of trust and hope because they have become the slaves of destructive habits and attitudes.

Good people are different. It is easy for good people to be tempted to use goodness as a mask. Without admitting or facing what they are doing, they act like little gods and goddesses by using a bunch of rules to give them the right to sit in judgment on others. They use the mask of goodness to control and wound others.

This all comes from the same motivation. It is all part of the same natural reflex of our slavery to the old rebellion of Eden, and Paul wrote most of his letter to the Romans to warn his friends of this danger. If we belong to Jesus we will learn to listen to his friend Paul.

By the power of the Holy Spirit, the work done for us by Jesus becomes a part of us, and the personality of Jesus becomes a part of us, and it begins to motivate us and grow within us. It’s not like being brainwashed, or having part of your brain removed. It isn’t like being bullied by someone bigger, and tougher, and even smarter than you are; although God is bigger, and tougher, and smarter.

It is more like finding a friend and finding your real self that was lost in Eden long before you were born. And that friendship and that lost self fit you so well that you would never be happy without them again.

Paul describes the new self that is really your true and long-lost self. He says that the Holy Spirit makes it possible, and the Spirit is not interfering with your freedom when he gets this new life growing in you. It is life in the image of God, and you were created for a life in the image of God in the first place. Your long-lost self is your long lost freedom.

Paul says that the image of God planted in you by the Holy Spirit looks like this: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5:22-23)

We stop thinking about rules that hold us in a vise, or laws that others are always using to judge us when we will fail. The Spirit is giving us a holy freedom.

When the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives we stop thinking about rules and we start thinking about Jesus. We start thinking about our love for God, and how we desire to love God with everything in us, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The Spirit brings Jesus into us and we grow in our freedom to love God, and our neighbor, and even ourselves in this God-given life.

Martin Luther, one of the great reformers of the church, five hundred years ago, wrote something about all of this that is so good that (if you have never heard it before) you need to hear it, and think about it. Luther wrote: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” This is the freedom of being a Christian. This is the freedom of belonging to Christ.

This leads us to the Book of Leviticus and the amazing principle of The Year of Jubilee. In Old Testament times, if you lost everything and if you lost every legitimate way of supporting yourself, and if your relatives had no way, and no means, of helping you out of your situation, you only had two options. One was to become an outlaw and live by robbery and murder; and that was forbidden.

The other option was to become a slave. Then someone with resources would take you in and provide for you, in return for your labor.

But God’s law for God’s people required that anyone who bought you would only have you and your labor for six years. When the six years were over and the seventh year came, you had to be restored to freedom, because God’s people are supposed to be free. (Exodus 21:2-11; Leviticus25:39-43) When your slavery was over, you recovered your long-lost self. You found your true freedom-self.

In the Old Testament world, land was the symbol of freedom and dignity. When the people of Israel entered the Promised Land, each family received an allotment of land that was supposed to remain in the family forever.

This allotment of land represented their inheritance and their resources as children of God, as the people of God. It stood for their relationship with the God of freedom who set them free from centuries of slavery in Egypt.

Sometimes a family would get in so much debt that they had to sell part of their land, or all of their land. It would be bought by a more fortunate neighbor. But there was supposed to be a year of jubilee, every fiftieth year, when every family that had lost their inheritance, as the people of God, would have it restored to them.

To be among the people of the land was to be free, and to have your land restored to you was like receiving a long-lost self, the dignity of children of God who had their rightful and equal place among all the rest of God’s people. But there is no record, anywhere in the Bible, of this law ever being kept.

Even though it was never kept, it was never forgotten. It was a symbol of the freedom promised by God all through the Bible.

The year of Jubilee is a symbol for Jesus who restores to us the life of the image of God for which we were created. Jesus is the Jubilee. Jesus is our freedom.

But Jesus also lives in us in order to live through us. You cannot understand the good news of Jesus unless you understand the old law that the people of Israel never kept. The people of God were expected to form a freedom-giving environment, not just for themselves but for others.

Land, in the Old Testament, gave you freedom and the means to be your full self. In a sense land gave you dignity, and resources, and abilities: and these came from God, the real owner of the land. (Leviticus 25:23) And this helps us understand the meaning of freedom.

Our full self was designed by God to have the resources and the means of focusing outward. Our real self was designed to have the ability of caring for others beside ourselves. Our full self was created to love God, and our neighbor as ourselves.

The truth is that this full, many-sided love can only by given by you to others when you, yourself, are restored to your long-lost land, or to your long-lost self. In Christ you are given the dignity, and resources, and abilities that you need to live the full life of love, and you are able to help those who have not been restored to their long-lost life, and freedom, and dignity.

Now we have to remember that, in the Old Testament, freedom and dignity were things that were lost and restored over and over again, in times of famine and in times when Israel was occupied and ruled by its enemies. The freedom of each slave came in the seventh year, and the restoration of land every fiftieth year.

If these laws were followed they would have involved everyone in the practice of planning and preparing for freedom for themselves and for others. Setting people free, and restoring them to their landed dignity would have become a way of life. It would have formed the very spirit of their community and their nation.

God’s people were supposed to form a community where the freedom and dignity of others was the natural concern of everybody. As a body they would know that the gift freedom was being given to someone every day. Everyone would be counting the days and years for someone’s freedom.

The church is called to be nothing less than that. Are we working for the freedom of others? Are we giving others the opportunities they need? Are we giving others the encouragement and the patience they need to find the freedom of Christ?

Now, in the Old Testament, this freedom was not only a matter of words. It was very practical. It involved labor, and money, and land, and the will to do something with it.

In the New Testament, the people of God, the people of the church were concerned about very practical issues. They were concerned about slaves and masters, workers and employers. They were concerned about the role of marriage and family. They were concerned about the poor. They were concerned about victims of disasters. They raised funds for hunger relief in the Holy Land. They visited the sick, and people in prison.

They were concerned with how to play a part in their society. They thought about how to live with the laws of the land and how to relate to the emperor and his government. They were concerned about laws, and rights, and justice. Paul was concerned about his right to be properly tried when he was arrested and jailed. (Acts 25-26)

His friends and their churches cared about this too. They all cared about these things because their freedom and the freedom of others were at the heart of the matter: because, through Jesus Christ, they knew the God of freedom.

In the United States of America, we have a tradition of freedom that owes a great debt to the founding generations of our nation. Those founders were raised and educated in communities and in an environment that were deeply rooted in the Bible.

In the events that led up to our Declaration of Independence, and our war for independence, and the writing of the constitution, they were very worried and serious about what kind of nation they were creating. They wanted to design a nation of freedom; a national community that nurtured freedom and dignity.

They knew that we would not survive as a nation of freedom if our citizens only cared about being the enjoyers of freedom. They knew that our laws and our customs would have to allow freedom, and to teach freedom, and (as much as possible) to require our citizens to make the effort of acting and living like free-minded people.

They knew that Americans would have to be people who spent time, and energy, and resources (and even their lives) helping people into freedom. Benjamin Franklin helped establish a free lending library to educate the people of Philadelphia, because he knew from personal experience that education was essential for freedom.

One of my great-great grandfathers came to America from Great Britain around 1850. He came here with practically nothing, and it took him a while to get settled. His family back in the British Isles had a number of different trades. One of them was candy making.

On first arriving, my great-great grandfather worked as canal digger. Then he worked in a starch factory, which was much better than digging canals. Eventually he started a business as a candy-maker, but he also worked as a part-time missionary, teaching in a Sunday school. On those days Sunday schools were established to teach the factory children who weren’t able to go to the regular schools.

There were no child labor laws. Many children worked six days a week (just as most grown-ups did) and they had only Sundays free. Some of these children wanted to learn how to read, and write, and do arithmetic, so they went to a Sunday school where my great-great grandfather and others taught them.

Doing this would set them free. It would open up whole new chances for freedom in their lives. My great-great grandpa also taught them how to live well, and he taught them about Jesus who would give them the strength and the will to find that better life.

He taught them about Jesus who would lead them to an even greater freedom, an everlasting freedom: the freedom of the gospel, the good news of God. In that freedom, those children would learn, like my great-great grandfather, to use their time, and their money, and their energy to be givers of freedom, and the nurturers of the freedom of others. If we know Jesus, then we will be lovers of freedom, and we will work to make this freedom real for others.

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