By Paul Koch –
The other day I was driving with my wife listening to talk radio, which depending on my mood can often be a very interactive experience. One of the many nameless talking heads that are running for president used a phrase or slogan that we have all heard at one time or another. In speaking about what I presume was foreign policy, or perhaps the use of our military, he said, “Now more than ever the world is ready for democracy; millions desire what we have, they long to be free.” Now I’m sure he went on to detail how it is that the United States could and should be of aid to help others become free, but my mind stuck with the line that people “long to be free.” Particularly I wondered if they in fact do long to be free, and maybe even more importantly, is freedom really what we possess?
Let’s assume that it is. After all, we do live in the land of the free and the home of the brave; and this, then, is what millions long for. So is it simply that we no longer deal with taxation without representation that makes us free? Is it that we have a system of government for the people by the people where we democratically elect our officials; is this what makes us free? Are we free because we can wear what we want, eat what we want, and drive whatever type of car we want? Is our freedom measured by our abundance? Is it because there are over 5 different types of Oreos when you go to the grocery store or there are literally hundreds of channels to choose from when you turn on the TV. Is this what makes us free?
The shocking truth is that we are not really free. Oh, we have liberties that other countries do not enjoy. We may have freedom of movement, freedom of choice over most things, but when it comes to our hearts and our minds I think we find that we are not at all free. When we take in the landscape of our supposed freedom, what do we see? In the land of the free, the pornography industry rakes in between 10 and 12 billion dollars a year. Our prison system runs us approximately 75 billion dollars a year. Racial tensions continue to run rampant in major cities, our children are losing their childhoods, and binge drinking is a sport on many college campuses. But don’t worry too much because those who are posturing to be the next leaders of this great freedom are expected to run presidential campaigns totaling around 5 billion dollars – all to win your free vote. If this is freedom it is a strange freedom. Rather it seems we are in bondage. We are slaves of our own desires and passions, bound to selfish motives. What looks like freedom is simply moving from one cage to another, but we are never truly free.
So though we talk big about freedom, most of us know that we are not as free as we had hoped. Many then find themselves on some sort of quest to find that freedom, they engage in certain rituals, certain behaviors, certain practices all with the hope that their chosen path might lead to true freedom. For some this might look like staying in good shape, for others it might be losing yourself in the politics of the day, for others it might be drugs or the bottom of a bottle. Perhaps we throw ourselves into our work or our families or our religion and there we believe we will navigate the pathway to true freedom.
I remember standing in the church of the Holy Sepulcher in the old city of Jerusalem. In that massive structure encased under stone and glass lay Golgotha, where our Lord was crucified. The tomb was also there, from which He walked breaking the strong grip of death and stepped out into life again. And lying on the ground near the place of the skull was a large flat rock; tradition says the lifeless body of Christ was laid upon it while they anointed Him with oil. And I watched as person after person came in and kissed that stone. I thought it was so strange, and then I realized that they were pilgrims doing what they felt was necessary to stay on that path to freedom. Visiting holy sites was a ritual with a blessing attached.
In John 8 we find a conversation about freedom that could have been spoken in that old church. Jesus says to the Jews who are gathered around him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Now notice how they respond. They say, “We are the offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.” Now usually we just start making fun of them at this point. After all a major part of their worship and life together is centered on their deliverance from the house of slavery. They know they were slaves, they remember really well the story of their exodus from Egypt. But perhaps they actually get what is going on here. After all they have the ritual, they have the law and the commands, they have a path that spells out freedom. The Gentiles, they might be slaves, the pagan unbelievers and the Samaritans sure, but not the children of Abraham; they are the chosen ones and they are possessors of freedom.
But it is here that our Lord drops the hammer. They have been consumed by their own action, focused on their attempts to maintain their freedom that they have overlooked their real slavery. “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” If you sin, great or small, then you are a slave. Who then but the Son of God is not a slave? They think that by holding to their lineage, to their rituals and observances that they are free. Like the pilgrims kissing rocks and weeping at walls they are dug deep into their bondage of sin. It is the sting of the Law that teaches us about our bondage. Every time you do what you know you ought not to do, every time you fail to do what you now you are called by your God to do, you reveal the bondage of man. The Law of God has us turn within ourselves and see the depravity of our situation. We are slaves to our sin and we are unable to free ourselves.
The solution, the answer, the assurance then to live as truly free, lies outside of ourselves. Outside of our works, outside of our good intentions, outside of our acts of faithful piety, our hope lies in Christ alone. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” The Son of God is the key to freedom. He is the one who came sinless and free into this world, He is the one who dug his hands deep into the dirt and grime of our lives. He covered himself with each and every one of your sins. He shouted out to the Law, “If you want to condemn anyone condemn me! For I have made the sins of the world my very own.” And the Law did just that, it killed the Son of God outside the holy city at the place of the skull. There in blood and agony your freedom was secured.
Freedom from sin’s destructive curse, freedom from the law’s accusation, freedom from wrath and condemnation: this is the gift he gives. In the resurrection from the dead our Lord proclaims that the path to freedom has been forged. In your baptism you were united to our Lord in His death and resurrection, in the Supper you feed upon the very gift of that freedom yet again, in the Word of Absolution you are declared to be this very day forgiven and free. “If you abide in my word:” the Word that washed you and called you by name, the Word that is placed into your mouths, the Word that rings in your ears, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Turn from your bondage and hear again His gracious word for you. In the name of Christ you are forgiven, you are free. And if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.