|South Coast Orange County California|
June 2015 and June 2016
Tuesday, July 26, 2016
Preached on Sunday, July 24, 2016
Scripture reading: Acts 4:32-5:11
An Irishman proposed to his girlfriend on St. Patrick’s Day. He gave her a ring. It looked like a diamond ring, but the stone was a synthetic diamond. When the girl realized it was fake she was furious. How could the man she loved trick her like that? She told him what she thought of him, but he told her this. “It was in honor of St. Patrick’s Day! I gave you a sham-rock!”
Ananias and Sapphira wanted to shine like diamonds in the church, but they didn’t want to pay the price for that. They paid another price instead. They paid for what they wanted with a lie. They wanted to be thought of as something they were not. And then they paid another price for that.
It was all a sham. They wanted to base their life as followers of Jesus on a lie. They wanted to be loved and valued as God’s people based on a lie.
This is a deadly desire. It kills the soul.
The New Testament calls the Holy Spirit the Spirit of Truth (John 16:13 and the Spirit of Life (Romans 8:2). The Holy Spirit is God. Peter said it: “You have lied to the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 5:3) “You have lied to God.” (Acts 5:4)
To go outside of the truth is truly to go outside of life. In this case, someone has written, “There are some things you cannot do and live.” (Theodore P. Ferris, International Bible Commentary; vol. 9, p. 76)
Some people truly die of broken hearts and grief. Some people think that they will die of shame, although I’m not sure if that happens.
Ananias and Sapphira plotted a lie about themselves, and what they had done for God, and for God’s people, and it killed them. When they went outside the Spirit of Truth, they also went outside the Spirit of Life.
The old courtroom oath goes like this: “Do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God.” Sometimes I don’t tell the whole truth. I hold some of the truth back. OK. Let me come right out and say it. I have lied. That’s the truth.
What can I say? I love the truth, but I don’t love it enough. I hate lies, but I don’t hate them enough. I know, to some extent what this means.
I am not surprised that lying killed Ananias and Sapphira. I am surprised that it doesn’t happen more often. Most of all, what surprises me is that it hasn’t killed me. I still live. Why?
I would say that this story tells us about the mercy of God just as much as it tells us about the holiness of God. It tells us that God gives us chance, after chance, after chance, to live into the truth and to live into the life of Christ.
It isn’t out of place to say that the sin behind the lie was hypocrisy. The story tells us that hypocrisy is deadly. It’s deadly to the soul. It’s deadly to the church. It’s deadly to the message of Jesus. It gives people much too good an excuse to reject both the church and the Lord whom the church represents.
It’s deadly, I say. We don’t feel this enough. We play the part of Ananias and Sapphira.
I also believe that it is possible to die of fear. I wonder if Ananias and Sapphira died because Peter, and the Holy Spirit speaking through him, caused them to see what they had done. They saw the face of evil in their hypocrisy. They saw the face of evil in their lie. Maybe this was too much for them, and the fear of what they had done killed them.
In terms of the lie, this wasn’t the first lie ever told. It was the first recorded lie told in the family circle of the church in the heart of being the church, where we are told: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” (Acts 4:32)
It would be like a wife or husband hearing their spouse tell a lie and they had never heard them do it before. Has that ever happened? It would be like a foul word used by a child in such a way that you realized that they were perfectly accustomed to using that word. It would be like a cigarette dangling from the lips of a twelve-year-old. And yet it happens.
We know in our heart that such things (and even worse things) should not exist, and yet they do exist.
The story about Ananias and Sapphira is shocking partly because we are so used to things being the way they are and, suddenly, we see that we have failed to see ourselves. And then we are blind because God’s goodness is so powerful that it allows us to hide from the truth of ourselves. Even in a fallen world, where everything is out of line and misses its point, or goes too far, or falls short of its mark…even in such a world, even in us, there is still so much that shows God’s glory and God’s image.
Any wrongdoing, or wrong in the heart, is like a blot on the face of God. Whether it’s adultery, or impurity, or a thirty-year feud, or a life dedicated to the manipulation of others, or cruelty, or something stolen from you, or a simple lie, all such things are acts of vandalism, or self-mutilation, of the image of God in us, in others, and in the cause of God.
In the church (whether it is the church of the time of Ananias and Sapphira, or the church here and now) the love of Jesus wraps around each person like a restored innocence. Sin is still there, but the innocence of Jesus is also there, because he died for each person, and for all of us together. He died and rose to give us a new life through which we are called to live into this new, offered innocence. Jesus died and rose from the dead to give us the power to make that goodness real and authentic.
We have been given a new life where our face, our words, and our actions become more and more like Jesus. Every day Jesus is to become more real in us. The cross of Jesus is meant to become who we are. The resurrection of Jesus is meant to become who we are: in real authentic life.
The gift of the Holy Spirit can enable you to see this new, real life becoming more and more real. Look around you. Look into the faces of others. Let’s start with these faces around us, as practice, and see Jesus. The people who have not learned see Jesus are meant, in the purpose of God, to be able to look at you, and see the Jesus they don’t know yet: and see the Jesus they could grow to love and grow into him.
Authenticity means being the real thing. Authenticity means you being who you really are and not pretending to be what you are not. I’ve known some people who have done this and the result was horrible. Christian authenticity has to go further.
For the Christian the boundary for being authentic has been pushed much farther out. Authenticity means really being Jesus, for a change. When Jesus is in you, to be anything else is to become a lie. It’s like lying to God, lying to Jesus, lying to the Holy Spirit.
Sin in us (sin in the church) is like another point of a thorn in a band-new crown of thorns. It’s like the point of a nail, or a spear, all over again on a new cross, or just on the old one. It’s like drawing a swastika on a portrait of Jesus or burning down a church.
And yet the lie and the hypocrisy of Ananias and Sapphira is so common it’s a fact of life.
Like so many things, once it was done, it became so easy to repeat. We don’t like it but we almost expect it. The world expects it of us, and sees it in us, even when it’s not there. Even Christians accept it as a fact of life. Yet it’s a destructive fact of life. It’s deadly.
Everything we do, everything we say, everything we think and feel, is done, and said, and thought, and felt in the presence of God. God hears. God sees.
The good news of Jesus is the news of a God who hears and sees this shocking world of ours, and even the shallowness and the hollowness of the supposedly holy people that we pretend to be. God hears and sees it all, along with all the vast centuries of this shocking world going on and on. God hears and sees it all, and comes and dies for this world, and for us. Then he rises from our death and gives us life.
Ananias and Sapphira were surrounded by people who knew this God, in Jesus, but they seem not to have authentically known him. Ananias and Sapphira didn’t know that God came in Jesus to buy them from their sins into a new life.
They were surrounded by the people who authentically met the love of the God who hears, and sees, and dies. They were surrounded by the people who couldn’t help doing anything but giving everything in return. They were surrounded by people who gave everything; not to buy Jesus, not to buy love and admiration, but in order to have nothing that could compete with being bought by Jesus.
Ananias and Sapphira wanted a new life among such people, but they didn’t want to give everything in return for that authentic life. What Jesus had done was not authentic for them. They had to construct a life in Christ out of lies.
They had not been bought by the cross and set free. The gospel, the good news of Jesus comes to take off the blinders, and break down the lies. The Christian life is very shallow and shaky until we get this freedom from what we pretend to be. Then we will have more than a sham to give to each other, and to God.
The gospel means good news because it is designed to make us free. We will only be free when we can accept God’s gifts the only way they can be given and received. God’s love is only given as a gracious, undeserved, cleansing love for sinners.
Only the people who know they need such a love can receive it. Christ can live in a person who is authentic enough to be thankful that a new life is offered to them at the price of a cross.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Preached on Sunday, July 17, 2016
Scripture reading: Acts 4:1-20
One of my grandmas (my Baci or Babci) was Polish and when I was a kid she taught me some Polish words. My favorite was “idź spać”.
“Idź spać” literally means “go to sleep”, but you can use it as one way of saying “shut up”. I loved that saying that!
When I was little, I would use that on people who had no idea what it meant. And I wouldn’t tell them what it meant. I was smart enough to know better. Or you could say I was just being silly.
The high priests of the Temple in Jerusalem must have thought that one of their most important jobs was to say “shut up”. I think they really loved that job. I think they were used to having people shut up very fast when they said it.
Peter had been on trial, once before, about Jesus. It wasn’t a formal trial. That first trail happened on the night when Jesus was arrested, when bystanders accused Peter of being a disciple of Jesus. Peter crumbled in fear and denied even knowing who Jesus was.
On this day in court, Peter was brilliant. Actually the Holy Spirit was brilliant. Peter said: “Are you putting me on trial for an act of kindness?” “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed.” (Acts 4:9-10)
Sometimes Christians seem very weird in the wrong way, and for all the wrong reasons. The New Testament teaches us to be weird in the right way, for all the right reasons.
Or maybe it shouldn’t be weirdness. It’s about being controversial. Followers of Jesus are called to the controversial life. Jesus motivates us to live, and speak, and respond in extraordinary ways; in unexpected, surprising ways. We are called to imitate the pattern of Jesus.
We do it for him. We do it in Jesus’ name. Paul wrote: “Whatever you do in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)
In this story about a healing, and the joy, and the fear, and the anger which that healing produced, we can see this element of surprise over and over again. When Peter and John made contact with the lame man, healing came as a complete surprise. The lame man never asked for healing.
There’s a little humor in it too. Peter almost joked when he said, “I’m sorry that I don’t have the money you need. All I can do for you is to heal you in the name of Jesus.” That’s an Evans paraphrase.
In the trial before the Jewish high court, Peter started out pretending to misunderstand the purpose of the trial. “Are we on trial for kindness here? Are you the kindness police?” Peter made light of something the court took very seriously.
The members of the court weren’t used to being treated like that. Even more surprising, the members of the court were very skillful in the art of creating fear and intimidation, and the disciples only demonstrated courage and conviction. It took the members of the court completely by surprise.
The court did nothing to Peter and John to hurt them, but the warning and the threat were real. The life of the disciples was set to change. Controversy for the sake of Jesus would be costly. Peter, and John, and the rest of the followers of Jesus would live into a life under threat.
How did they all respond? They prayed. What did they pray for? Did they pray for deliverance, and safety, and God’s all-powerful protection? No! Did they pray for wisdom, and prudence, and discernment?
No! The discernment they already had led them all to pray for boldness. That was the big surprise. The high court hadn’t sent them home for that. The Holy Spirit did the surprising thing and filled them all with boldness.
Peter and John had been courageous and positive. In their message to the crowd, they had made a point of comforting their hearers by recognizing that they had not realized what they had done when they shouted for the crucifixion of Jesus, and that the leaders hadn’t known what they were doing either. During the trial, Peter only talked to the high court the way he did in an honest effort to talk sense to them, and to tell them the truth that they clearly didn’t understand even yet. Boldness can be as simple as that.
In our controversial life we are only giving the world around us, and the people we see every day, a gift that we understand, knowing that they simply don’t understand yet.
In our controversial life we are called to do and to say surprising, unexpected things. In our controversial life we are called to humbly and good humoredly give to others something much better than what we are given. This is because of what Jesus has given us. It’s because of what Jesus is more than ready to them. We only give to the world around us the work and the words of Jesus.
The controversial life can be dangerous. In the end Peter died because he lived and spoke for Jesus. Of all the apostles, only John died a natural death. The others were all killed because they lived and spoke for Jesus, and because they did this with boldness.
Boldness for Jesus can be dangerous. People are dying for Jesus right now. We shouldn’t think that this danger is beyond the realm of possibility for each one of us. We never know what way the world will turn.
On a lesser note, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to find yourself being told to shut up about Jesus. Someone you know very well, and have always gotten along with just fine, may basically say to you something like this: “We don’t care what you do as long as you shut up about it. Shut up about Jesus.”
Remember that you can be bold with humor, and grace, and with good sense.
Some Christians seem to think that Jesus does some sleight of hand with us. They think that, if you make a formal, heart-felt surrender of your right to a thing, that Jesus will turn around and give you that thing. I keep thinking that if I surrender what I consider to be my right to be married, that God will give me a wife. I’ve been making that mistake for years now.
If you surrender to God your sense of having a right to live a quiet, non-controversial life in which you are not called upon to have your faith judged and to have your faith mocked, that doesn’t mean that God will be OK with your retreat from the controversial life.
Of course you can play possum. You can play it safe, if you really want to do that. The price of playing it safe will be a life where God leaves you alone a great deal of the time. That can be a happy life, and a lot of people choose to live a life where God leaves them mostly alone.
Our calling is to rescue those people from that kind of happiness. You’ve got to choose your happiness carefully (or perhaps boldly).
When Peter and John were called back into court and told to shut up, this was their answer: “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)
One thing cannot be a surprise; and that is knowing whom to obey.
There is this other thing too. “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” If we are to be followers of Jesus there must be something that we know of him.
Boldness is not a part of my nature. I had to start doing surprising things that no one expected me to do when I had a deep conviction in my heart that I could not stand the thought of being a person who said no to Jesus. I had to do something that I didn’t believe I had to do (and I still don’t believe I had to do it).
The Lord presented me with some minor thing that I had to do. I had to fight myself to do it. I had to be controversial with myself; that I would not say no in a little thing to Jesus, who died for me on the cross.
I have to be vague about this because, otherwise, I promise you, someone will make this little thing into a big thing that everyone has to do.
When I refused to be a person who said no to God, I began to change in many ways and to understand the Bible in ways I had never understood it before. I became happy in a way that I had not been, ever before.
There was no supernatural vision or hearing. There wasn’t even a sense of “my heart strangely warmed.” (Although I have had such spiritually warming experiences before and since.)
I had to perform the surprising gesture of disobeying myself and crossing a line that I had drawn in the sand. I was pushing a boundary. I was making myself into a controversy with myself.
When I did this, something in me cracked and opened. I simply became abler than ever before to see and to hear that Jesus is real, and that Jesus is Lord.
Before they were arrested, Peter and John spoke to the crowd about the times of refreshing that will come from the Lord. (Acts 3:19) This points to the new creation, the new heaven and earth that will come when Jesus comes again.
The times of refreshing, though, are beginning right now. They have been beginning for the last two thousand years. The times of refreshing come when Jesus crosses a line that you have drawn in the sand, when he comes to any person and cracks that shell that they have made to protect themselves from knowing who Jesus is.
The times of refreshing come with the forgiveness of that past life and the change that every person needs so much, so deep down inside them. That is the work of the death of Jesus for us on the cross, and his own rising to a new life to give us the gift of dying to ourselves and rising to a new life.
There is some way that Jesus will make you able to see and hear that he is real, and that he is Lord, that you have never understood before. Jesus died and rose to make this possible, and to make you his own person.
Then you will join the controversial life, and you won’t be able to help speaking and living what you have seen and heard of Jesus.
Monday, July 11, 2016
Preached on Sunday, July 10, 2016
Scripture reading: Acts 2:36-47
There was a man who finally let his friend drag him to a Bible study, and what surprised him most was that he actually enjoyed it. He told the people he worked with about it the next day: “It was amazing. None of us knew anything and we all taught each other!”
|Orange County California Coast|
In the beginning of what we call the church, being a follower of Jesus was a little bit like that. Everything was a surprise. The apostles were in charge, but they had no idea what would happen next. They had no idea what they would do next.
Peter didn’t know he was going to preach that sermon we just read the end of. He didn’t know that anyone was going to listen to him. He didn’t know that following Jesus was going to be like running through a series of explosions.
One of my favorite Christian jokes is this. Do you know how to make God laugh?
Tell him your plans.
After Jesus was crucified, after the disciples thought that Jesus’ plan had failed, Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus was stronger than death. Jesus must have had a good laugh over the plans of the godly people who had crucified him. What a surprise he gave everyone!
Let’s say that this was the first really big surprise? So then the disciples planned to watch Jesus conquer the world and rule as King in Jerusalem, which is what they had hoped for all along. Jesus had surprised them by dying, and then by rising from the dead; king of the world.
It’s as if Jesus laughed at this plan, because his next move was another surprise. Jesus promised to be with them always; and he did this by flying up to heaven, and leaving them on earth.
For at least the next few minutes, they expected him to come back with an army of angels to become the king of the world. But there were only a couple angels and these told them to stop looking up at the sky and standing around for Jesus. The reminder was for them to go back to Jerusalem to wait for the Spirit of God to come and fill them up.
Well, Jesus had told them that the next big thing coming was that the Spirit of God would make them able to be witnesses for him all over the world. The Spirit would enable them to speak for Jesus and to be the living evidence of Jesus to the world.
So when the Holy Spirit came, like wind and fire, into the room where they were praying, they went out onto the street, and some people said they were acting and sounding like babbling drunks. That was a surprise. Then Peter said that that couldn’t be true, because it was only nine o’clock in the morning. And so, by surprise, Peter gave the first sermon joke. And so, three thousand people believed that Jesus (for whom a lot of them had shouted for him to be crucified) was the true king of the kingdom of God.
What could be more natural? Or else, what could be more completely unexpected and unplanned? Jesus had always been the master of surprise, and he was still doing it.
I would say that the really big change, the really big surprise, after the Holy Spirit filled the disciples, was that Jesus, the master of surprise, was making his followers, and their life together, into a great big surprise.
The first surprise after the surprise of Pentecost, and all those new followers of Jesus, was the surprise of their new life together: this shared life.
There are about ten different components to that new life; that shared life, and that’s too many to talk about now. One of those things I have noticed is the presence of words like: “together”, “everyone”, “all”, “anyone”, “common”, and most of all “fellowship”.
Fellowship is the key issue for me today. It’s a strong word and Christians both overuse it, and scale it back, and weaken it. The word, in Greek, is “koinonia”. The root of the word appears a second time in our reading where Luke says that “all believers were together and had everything in common.” Later on, in the fourth chapter, Luke says this: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions were his own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 4:32)
I’ve seen some of that sharing between you and me, since I crashed my car, and I have been offered multiple cars, if I need them.
In Spanish the famous phrase for sharing hospitality is: “Mi casa es su casa.” My home is your home. The first followers of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit meant that literally.
There were special circumstances and special needs that made that sharing necessary, but there are many times when we refuse to do what’s necessary. You’d be surprised (or maybe not) how many churches choose not to do what’s necessary.
The big surprise, and the actual miracle, was that the Holy Spirit made the merely necessary into the possible. And the Holy Spirit took what was possible and made it actual. The Holy Spirit inspired his people to do a human miracle. The Spirit made the life of his people into a miracle of partnership.
Even “partnership” is too weak a word for koinonia. The people of Jesus (the people of the Holy Spirit) belong to each other. That’s what fellowship and the shared life means.
If I said that I own you, I would be completely off base on this belonging thing. There are people (including some Christians) who think they own other people; or they think they own their church.
Koinonia just means that I belong to you and you belong to me.
Maybe being family would be another way of saying it. In some churches they call each other brother and sister.
I believe that this shared life goes much farther than the brothers and sisters of a family. Although the early church also thought of themselves as brothers and sisters within a common family. It’s much more than a church thing. When you read the Book of Acts, you can see that the first followers of Jesus saw the whole world that way. Surely this is why their partnership enjoyed “the favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:47)
I can’t say “I own you” but I can say “I owe you”. If I am full of the Holy Spirit (who is also the Spirit of Jesus) I will start looking at everyone I meet and think: “I owe you. I owe you Jesus.” That is part of our belonging to each other and it’s even part of our belonging to the world.
In the next chapter, Peter and John were going to worship in the Temple and they saw a lame beggar begging for charity. The beggar looked at them and asked them directly for money. It was how he made his living.
This was part of the faith of the Jewish people, to give to those in need. Those in need were needed by everyone else so that they had someone to give to. This continues to be part of the Jewish faith: you need to give to the needy, so the needy are completely necessary if anyone else is going to express their devotion to God.
With Peter and John, a first, quiet miracle happened. Luke tells us that “Peter looked straight at him, as did John.” (Acts 3:4) They experienced a miracle of looking and seeing. They looked at the beggar and they saw a person to whom they were going to give Jesus. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus, rise up and walk.” (Acts 3:6)
When the Holy Spirit fills you, you look at other people and you say to yourself: “I owe them Jesus.”
This is the life the first followers of Jesus shared. This is what made some people fear them, and hate them. This is also what made many people love them. This was the “koinonia” that the people of Jesus shared. It was the new life that they owed to everyone.
When we look at the people of faith around us, the miracle of looking at them and really seeing them shows us that we belong to each other. That’s what we see. When we look at the people who are not in touch with the greatness and beauty of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the miracle of looking at them and really seeing them shows us that we belong to them and that they belong to us.
We owe them Jesus. This comes from the gift of the shared life, and that life comes from Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
It doesn’t come from you or me. It is a miracle. It’s a miracle that comes from something real. It comes from what Jesus has done. It comes from the cross. It comes from Jesus dying for your forgiveness and mine, and for everyone we see, when we really see them.
It’s in the message that Peter preached on the street.
It involves repentance. It begins there, but repentance is never a thing you leave behind, because you have built your life on it. The foundation of our life is Jesus, but repentance is the first layer on that foundation. Our life, built on Jesus has to be Jesus-shaped. But it also has to stay repentance-shaped. And the shared life depends upon repentance. There is no other way that we can succeed at belonging to each other.
In the Old Testament Hebrew, repentance means turning around, making an about face, and retracing your steps, and going backward. In math, you often check your work, and fix it, by doing it backwards. Repentance means the willingness to change.
The Greek word for repentance means to get a new mind. It means leaving your old mind and your old heart, and getting new ones. We can never succeed at living a shared life without this.
The forgiveness of sins is a powerful gift that comes from Jesus wounded, and bleeding, and dying for us. For me, firming up my commitment of my life to Jesus required me to say “yes” to that gory and bloody mess on the cross. Since he did that for me, I can’t say no to him. I can’t say no to that.
Being forgiven, I must forgive others, and this can be so hard to do. That doesn’t matter. Because of Jesus, I owe forgiveness to others and to you, and you owe that same debt of forgiveness. The shared life is impossible without that power.
The gift of the Holy Spirit is the power of God and the work of Jesus. With this, all things are possible. If we share this among ourselves we will be changed. We owe this to each other. But we also owe this to the world. Jesus and his Spirit have made this necessary, if we want to live the life to which they call us.
The Lord’s Supper tells us what we owe to each other and to the world around us. It also gives us what we owe. The Lord’s Table is the gift of Jesus. Jesus has given it to us as the place where we meet him and receive, by faith, a new shared life: a life we share with him, and with each other, and with the world.
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
Preached on Sunday, July 3, 2016: This is a slight re-editing of an earlier sermon from 2011.
Scripture readings: Leviticus 25:8-13; Romans 8:1-21
|Flags blowing around Desert Aire/Mattawa WA|
We can’t 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 Jesus, and new life that comes from Jesus.
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’s 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. (Genesis 3:5) It was a rebellion to make ourselves smart enough to be independent, so we could be in charge.
In a sense, our rebellion was about freedom, because we thought that the freedom for which God had made us was not nearly enough. When we rebelled for the sake of our own brand of freedom, we altered human nature. We became a hereditary race of rebels and failed gods.
This is not the way to freedom. This is not the way to the sort of freedom that brings any meaningful, lasting happiness.
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 the human race would be set free from slavery.
The promise was brief, and simple; and it was made (strangely enough) by God to the devil, who had taken the form of a snake. God promised that a time would come when a descendant 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, by being hurt, he would kill the devil.
Jesus was terribly hurt by the devil, working through human powers, on the cross. Jesus was hurt to the death. But he rose alive. He can no longer be hurt or defeated. He’s infinitely free.
The devil is the defeated one. 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 him, and the Spirit has the power to plant the sacrifice and victory of Jesus in us.
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.” 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. Sometimes the rebel nature, lurking in us all, jumps at the chance to be confused about freedom. Our confusion about freedom gives us an excuse to go back to our old addiction. There are so many advantages that come from the excuse of confusion.
Sometimes freedom seems to be the exact opposite of what Christians are about. Being Christian seems to be about rules and not 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.” Freedom needs priorities.
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 know what was coming, or if someone passed on a straight-a-way where anybody could see the cars approaching without the room to pass, he would say, “That guy is in a hurry to his own funeral.”
I drive fast, but I am very cautious about passing, most of the time. I also try to always stop in time, but that clearly doesn’t work. 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 human beings 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’re in a hurry to their own funerals. Others are in a hurry to the funeral of their relationships with the people who love them and count on them. They’d rather have what they want, the way they want it, than have real love. They kill the freedom that comes from trust and hope. They’d rather keep their false freedom.
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’re 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.
It all comes from the same old motivation. It’s all part of the same natural reflex of our slavery to the old rebellion of Eden. 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 part of us. The personality of Jesus becomes part of us. It motivates us and grows in 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 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 will 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 doesn’t interfere with your real 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 fail. The Spirit gives 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 the love of 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. We grow in our freedom to love God, and our neighbor, and even ourselves in this new 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 everyone.” This is the freedom of being a Christian. This is the freedom of belonging to Jesus.
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 your family and, if your relatives had no way of helping you, 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 (if you wanted it), 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 with that 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 into 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 completely 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 your long-lost self, the dignity of the 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 can’t 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 everyone.
Land, in the Old Testament, gave you freedom. Land was 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 to love our neighbor as ourselves. Perfect love is freedom.
The truth is that this full, many-sided love can only be 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 the land was supposed to come 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 of freedom was being given to someone every day. Everyone would be counting the years and the days 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 Jesus?
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, and so they raised funds for hunger relief in the Holy Land. They visited the sick. They visited 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 for everyone.
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 freedom-minded people, and to be loving freedom-givers.
They knew that Americans would have to be people who spent time, and energy, and resources (and even their lives) helping people into freedom. In one tiny way, Benjamin Franklin helped establish a free, public 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. 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 Methodist Sunday school. In those days Sunday schools were established to teach the factory children who weren’t able to go to the regular schools during the week.
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; the life of freedom.
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. If we know Jesus very well, then we will want our communities and our nation to enable and nurture true freedom for everyone.