The following is a sermon given by Dr. Richard Thompson at First United Methodist Church in Bakersfield, California on July 7, 2014.
There seems to be something in the human heart that yearns for freedom. In my childhood, the “Cold War” between a free U.S. and an oppressive Soviet Union seemed to be a permanent feature of life. Then, back in 1989, that symbol of imprisonment for millions under the communist yoke, the Berlin Wall, came down. More than a decade ago, the same cry for liberty was heard in Tiannamen Square, China, but was crushed by tanks. A couple of years ago, we heard about the so-called “Arab Spring,” starting in Egypt and then spreading to Libya, Syria, and beyond. It was an expression of the desires of people for freedom from oppressive regimes. Freedom is still a dream for millions around the globe. Oh, freedom, how precious it is. So how is it for the Christian heart?
Freedom and the Bible
Freedom has deep roots in the Bible. The premier story of the Old Testament is of Moses leading the people Israel from slavery in Egypt to freedom in a land God provided for them. The New Testament is about God’s greatest gift to us – Christ Jesus – who frees us from the shackles and burden of sin, and its resulting guilt. “For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that…we should no longer be slaves to sin…” Romans 6:6. The Christian believes that our greatest freedom is found in freely choosing to obey God through Jesus and allowing the Holy Spirit to work within us to shape us into Christ’s likeness.
Just a couple of days ago, we celebrated the freedom that has been the guiding force of our nation since its inception. On the Fourth of July in 1776, representatives of the Continental Congress of America signed our country’s Declaration of Independence from England. In the second paragraph of this Declaration is found these well-known words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Do we really believe that? Do we really believe that there is a Creator God who made us? Or are we just an evolutionary accident? What you believe on this score makes all the difference in how you view life and freedom.
Secondly, do we believe that God bestowed upon every person certain rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Or do we believe that rights are granted by governments? Do we believe that all people have those rights, or just some? And that begs more questions, like how are governments to be instituted? Who should be in the government? What kind of people should have power over others?
And lastly we must ask: is faith in God necessary to sustain a Republic that is founded on the principal of God given rights and self-rule?
American as Apple Pie
The rights of the individual and freedom have been the prevailing cries since 1776, at both an individual and national level. Freedom is as common to America as is apple pie. Yet, for so central an idea, liberty has been understood in a very superficial way. Too often freedom is seen as the removal of all immediate constraints. At many levels in our society “I’ll have it my way” or “I can do whatever I want” has come to define the meaning of freedom.
Ironically, that kind of freedom never really brings true liberty. Look around you today. In this country of tremendous freedoms, we have many people with messed up lives, slaves to their emotions, passions, prejudices, misinformation, and pride. The result is unhappiness, misdirected lives, broken families, and crime. All because people, despite the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, are not truly free.
The founders of our nation understood this. Those who wrote and signed our Constitution understood that only a virtuous people, upheld by their faith in God (and by and large they understood this to be a Christian faith), would be able to live in political, social, and economic freedom guaranteed by the founding document. As the Bible reminds us, “…do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love,” Galatians 5:13. If people are not virtuous, then no amount of laws can make them do right, and government intervention will not be able to right all the wrongs.
Independence Day used to be celebrated more widely as a day to remember the meaning of our nation’s founding: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were read and explained. These days, for the majority of Americans, Independence Day is simply an excuse for a three-day holiday, and we are the poorer for it. Few Americans have actually read the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, neither of which are very long documents. Christian people, those who have found their freedom in Christ, should read them.
“We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
That one sentence from the Declaration of Independence sets America apart from most all the nations on earth. The value of each person is not derived from government benevolence or from the mercies of democracy. Democracy and individual dignity derive from the transcendent reality of a Creator. Take away the Creator, and we are at the mercy of the powers of the moment.
The Declaration of Independence clearly states that freedom of individuals is a divine gift – not something that can be granted by kings or presidents, legislatures or bureaucracies. The Constitution outlines a form of self-governance that understands that freedom is of divine origin, that humans are sinful and fallible, and that those who govern are just as sinful as everyone. Therefore, government should be of limited power lest it impinge upon divine-given freedom. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” said James Madison, who wrote much of the Constitution. But we know that men are not angels, so all the more reason to limit the power of people in government. These are all philosophical understandings that find their source in the Bible. Religion influences culture, and culture influences politics. Religion, then, really does form the foundation.
The Right Kind of Freedom
Freedom of the right kind is essential for us to become who God intends us to be. Political and social freedoms actually begin with morality, and morality is founded in spiritual freedom. The Bible states quite clearly the standards for a moral person and a moral society. They are contained in the Ten Commandments, are really quite simple, and are rooted in an absolute: God and how God has ordered this universe. Some reject all this, seeing God as a celestial policeman wanting to spoil their fun. Some run away from Him for a myriad of reasons. Some believe they have a better plan for human societies than God’s.
Even more, I think there is a widespread assumption these days that there are no standards that have an absolute claim on all people. Honestly, many folks live as though God is dead. This assumption says you take your pick of values in the ethical supermarket of life. If ethics can derive from human custom or personal choice, what happens when your ethics conflict with mine?
If morals are simply a matter of head count, if values are relative and depend on personal choice, the world is heading for destruction. “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Proverbs 14:12. When our morals and ethics are determined by political expedience and power, pushed by the winds of changing human desires, we will surely lose our freedoms. And I fear this has been happening at a rapid pace in our lifetimes. Our cherished American liberty is being undermined by our own apathy.
When our moral fabric frays, the law and governments fill the void. They govern by threat of force aspects of life that we used to govern by our own ethical standards. Eroding morals lead to a loss of our freedom and tyrannical government. The choice is this: control yourself, or be controlled by your own sin, which leads to oppression. Our freedom must be rooted in God, or it is no freedom at all.
Freedom is more than being happy or choosing a code of conduct. It has to do with the kind of people we are. Jesus of Nazareth strikes me as the most liberated man who ever lived. He knew very well there was a divinely appointed standard of ethics and he framed his life in accordance with it. He said “I do always those things which please him,” John 8:29 (meaning His heavenly Father). But could anyone say that his faith stifled his freedom? He was utterly free of covetousness, free of hypocrisy, free of the fear of others, free to be Himself. He was free to look into people’s hearts and tell them the truth about themselves, free to love men and women with purity, and free to voluntarily surrender his life for others. “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord…” John 10:17-18.
Was there ever so free a human being? He knew the truth that freedom is not the license to do what you want but the liberation to do what you ought. He has shown that real freedom is unselfish and warm, generous and person-centered, more to do with relationships than role keeping. Jesus is the free person’s model. Duty did not stifle him. Obedience did not obliterate his freedom. Circumstances did not imprison him. He was utterly free – free to use his power for others, free to love the unlovely, free to confront oppressors and injustice. The ultimate liberated man.
True Christian freedom is Jesus shaped. There is no legalism about it. It is based on the conviction that there is indeed an absolute in the realm of ethics, and that this ideal can be known to us: clearly seen Jesus of Nazareth. So Christian freedom has nothing to do with rules and regulations. It has everything to do with pleasing Christ and allowing him to be the model for our relationships with God and people, a model for our service of others, and our standards of honesty and purity. It is allowing the best human being who ever lived to be the motivating force within us. He even sets us free from the limitations of our particular culture and circumstances – free to be the people God created us to be. That’s a message worth sharing!
There are so many, right around here, who go through their lives not really free. Oh, to be sure, many believe they are free, they have money, or can indulge their desires. But most are captive to prestige and power, or materialism, unhealthy narcissism, or their sexual urges. Others are caught in a trap of low self worth, or even a lifestyle that at best might be called plain boring – that’s not freedom!
People are hungry for freedom and yet have never heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.They may have heard about church, or have some opinion about Christians, but have they heard how Jesus has made a difference in your life?
Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few,” Luke 10:2. How true. The field of need is all around us.
Galatians 5:1 – “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” It’s the Good News that makes all the difference in the world! Freedom in Christ truly sets you free.
In summary, let us remember this:
- Our true freedom comes from God.
- Freedom is the work of the Holy Spirit inside us.
- Freedom begins with each one of us.
- Our nation’s freedom depends on all of us.
If you have not yet given your life to our Risen Lord, your freedom still awaits you.