Freedom. It’s that thing we grasp onto but can hardly control. It’s the foundational principle that the United States was built on, that the Civil War was fought for, that is still held out as the standard for countries and peoples around the world. Sometimes, we take freedom for granted because we’ve never been the ones held down, we’ve never been the ones who don’t have enough, don’t have a voice, or don’t get the respect we need. Sometimes, we let ourselves be deluded into thinking we’re free when we make decisions about what we’ll fill our lives with. But if we’re filing our hearts with anything but Jesus, we’re not really free.
See, God is all about freedom, and God sent Jesus so we’d get freedom.
While God gave freedom to the first man and woman in the Garden of Eden, humanity squandered their freedom. Even when it comes to God’s people – the Israelites – freedom wasn’t always easy to grasp onto.
In our Scripture today, Exodus 12:1-13, God shows up and announces how the Israelites are going to leave Egypt. Now, the Egyptians have held the Israelites down, as they forced them into slavery and made them cower in fear, killing off generations of Israelites. But with Moses, God has raised up a leader to fight off the slavery – to establish freedom in God’s name. Without a struggle though, that freedom will be just a hope and dream.
So God announces that the Israelites are going to leave, carrying just what they need. God sets the community up to rely on each other – to establish a ceremony about what God has done before God has even done it! And then God proceeds to make all of his promises about freedom and covenant and future come true by wiping out the Egyptians but keeping the Israelites safe.
The Israelites are free! God made it happen. And yet, the Israelites wandered around for forty years because they couldn’t believe, they wouldn’t believe, that God was enough to free them. This is a story we heard before, isn’t it?
Imagine a place – let’s call it a prison – where everyone is bound in the darkness. Isolated, separated, struggling with their own issues. They only know the life inside of the prison – as did their parents before them and their parents before them. Their reality is the prison. Now, some of the prisoners do enough to get by but no one is really thriving; everyone in the prison – the prisoners – are just surviving. They recognize that there’s life outside of the prison, but they can’t imagine ever experiencing it.
And then one day a new person arrives in the prison. He’s not like any of the other people but he makes himself one of them. He goes from person to person, pointing out to them that they are actually free to leave. The doors of their prison cells are not locked; there are no guards at the doors.
But the prisoners are so scared of what might be outside of the prison – so scared of how their lives might change – so comforted where they are – that the prisoners kill this new man and throw him out of the prison. In the days that follow though, something happens – some of the prisoners begin to wonder if the new man was right.
Gradually, one by one, and occasionally in pairs – some of the prisoners begin to leave the prison, and form a community outside the prison’s walls. After a few weeks, this new community formed in the name of the new man begin to send people back into the prison to share this good news, that the prison locks are broken, that the people there are already set free if they would just believe.
Friends, this is the story of Moses – and the reality made by the gift of Jesus Christ to the world. And still today, with the truth of the Son – of that New Man – present in the world, people are still taking Jesus, and throwing him out of the prison.
Are we guilty of that?
We have been offered freedom – but are we truly free?
Noah Spence was on top of the world. As a linebacker for Ohio State University, he was a big man on campus and a sure-fire NFL talent. He came from a good home, cared about his schoolwork, and did what he was supposed to. But then he discovered that he liked to party – and experimented with ecstasy. He still completed work on the field and in the classroom, averaging As and Bs, so he figured that everything was going fine.
Until he received a drug test randomly and found himself temporarily off of the team. Repentant, he stayed free and clear of the drugs, and worked his way back into nearly acceptable status. Heading into the last weekend of the summer before his junior year, he went out with friends – and did ecstasy one more time.
Unaware that a final drug test loomed for him the first Monday of school.
A second offense found Spence off of the team. Utterly broken, he repented to his parents and to his coach, Urban Meyer. He entered drug rehab, and continued to work on his education. Upon watching his remorse – and determination – Meyer recommended him to a friend coaching at the smaller Eastern Kentucky University football team where he proceeded to tear up offensive lines. Impressively, he exploded at the Senior Bowl, and continued to send his drug tests (all clean) to every NFL team.
Spence thought he had it all together. He thought he was in control of his destiny – and his needs. But several poor decisions – and one last second loss of self-control – jeopardized everything.
We might too quickly say, “Well, I’ve never lived in prison. I’ve never worn chains” or ” I’m not addicted to illegal substances, that’s not me.” Or, “I read my Bible, say my prayers, and go to church, I know I’m free.”
And yet, when left to our own devices… are we truly free?
Every week, I meet with people whose chains may not be made of steel and cuffs, but whose shoulders are bent by the weight of the bondage.
They’re bound by the things that others have done to them, or by the weight of someone else’s expectations.
They’re bound by the addictions to themselves, to chemicals or ‘stuff’ or money or relationships.
They’re bound by the messages they hear from the media, that tells them that violence or political parties are stronger and more important than the good news of Jesus Christ.
They’re bound by -isms, the racism, the sexism, or atheism – all things which deny God.
The thing is – oppressed people recognize the good news of the gospel more easily than those of us who have grown comfortable. They recognize that Jesus wouldn’t vote Democrat … or Republican, that Jesus would’ve marched in #BlackLivesMatter campaigns and shown up at Gay Rights parades, that Jesus would’ve comforted abortion doctors and those undergoing abortions, that Jesus would have shown up in church … and outside church, that Jesus would’ve been where the least and the last and the lost were.
Because Jesus shows up in the midst of our prison, and tells us that we’re actually free. And then he asks those who believe in him to do something about making others free.
Jesus shows up like God showed up in the life of the Israelites and says, “Celebrate your freedom – because I’ve already set you free.” After God had already called Moses to be part of the freedom revolution, the underground revolution, the holy non-violent jihad of epic, Biblical proportions. Then God freed God’s people and told them to live right, to walk with God, to love each other. It wasn’t enough to free them from shackles of steel; God wanted to free their souls, too.
Paul wrote about it this way: “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ…Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2).
We weren’t always in but sometimes, we forget what it was like to be out.
I am reminded of the story of Nelson Mandela, held captive for 27 years as an enemy of the State of South Africa, for protesting that all humans were meant to be free – and equal. His freedom was a big deal for him personally, but his response to being freed was remarkable. See, Nelson Mandela chose not to hate his captors or those who persecuted him, but instead chose to recognize that he was freed to spread freedom. And hate would’ve just chained him down. Mandela had been in chains of human making, and he wasn’t interested in being bound by emotional chains. In fact, Mandela said, “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
Today, friends, I want to remind you that you’re free. I want to remind you that Jesus Christ died on the cross for your sins before you were ever born.
Jesus died for the addicts, for the selfishness, for the brokenness, for those violent in word or deed. Jesus died for the excessively smart and the amazingly naive. Jesus died for those in the ‘burbs and those from the wrong side of the tracks. Jesus died so that we could stand up and scream “and they will never take away our freedom”… by dying on a cross.
Jesus died for our freedom.
The beauty is that God didn’t let it end that way, because God freed Jesus from death.
God wanted freedom to be more than a piece of paper, more than a thought, more than a cause.
God wanted you to do more than survive; God wants you to thrive. But you have to make that decision for yourself – to accept God’s offer. Because you can stay in the prisons with no doors. Or you can be free.
Once you’re free, there’s nothing that can hold you back – no physical, mental, emotional chain that will keep you from recognizing who you are. Yes, there will be challenges; yes, there will be struggle. But in the onslaught of God’s freedom, in the power of the kingdom of God, you will shout like every prisoner freed before you:
“Ain’t no chains on me!”