(Jeremiah 31:31-34, Psalm 46, Romans 3:19-28)
(watch here: https://youtu.be/Dt_55KKn2Jc)
31Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; 32and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” 33They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?” 34Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. 35The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. 36So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
So what does freedom mean to you? What value does freedom have for you? Better yet, are you a slave to anything or anyone? Are you a slave to your work? To your bills? To your home? To your family? To your marriage? To your schooling? To your friends? To yourself? To your body? To your mind? To your past? To the process of aging? How about to God? Do you blindly, mindlessly serve an authoritarian, taskmaster of a God? Ask yourself, what seems to have absolute power over you, so much so that you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself without it or him or her? Or are you like the Jews in the today’s reading from John that claim “they have never been slaves to anyone?” My guess is that few among us would have the boldness to make such a claim. Besides, Jesus reminds the Jews (and us) that our sin enslaves us. We are all sinners; therefore, we are all slaves if only to our sinful natures. But just because we are sinners this doesn’t mean we have to become slaves to sin. We can deny our sinful natures. We can free ourselves from the bondage of sin by simply placing our faith and trust in Jesus. But back to the initial question about freedom: what value does freedom have for you?
You might not place a very high value on freedom. You might place a higher value on the false comforts of slavery. At least in slavery you kind of know what’s expected of you and you kind of know what to expect from the master. The harshness can only be so harsh, can only last so long, or so you tell yourself. The master needs you, the master values you…these are the lies you try to find comfort in. The truth of the matter is that the master is simply using you for however long you’re willing to give. The master doesn’t care about the slave, only about what the slave provides at no cost. So in whatever you’ve found yourselves a slave to, know that you’re considered completely dispensable and worthless. The master places no value in you, only in what you give at no cost.
There are many among us who do place a high value on freedom though. They understand the utter injustice of slavery. They understand their worth beyond what they can provide at no cost. This isn’t to say that everything that is given should have a cost but rather that there is great value in each of us. There is great value in freedom…freedom to live, freedom to work, freedom to develop relationships, freedom to choose, freedom to worship, freedom to rest, freedom from anything that seeks to enslave us. There is great power in freedom! There is great joy in freedom! There is great life in freedom! There is little to no life in slavery. There is little to no joy in slavery. There is little to no power in slavery. And yet we all too often find ourselves becoming slaves to relationships or concepts or work or sin itself. Unless we place a value on freedom, we naturally default to slave/master relationships. The false senses of comfort in slavery are much stronger than we like to acknowledge. We have to encourage and promote freedom! We have to place an extremely high value on freedom that is just as comparable to the lures of slavery. We can’t let slavery take hold of our minds and our hearts and our bodies. We must allow for freedom to establish and guide our lives and lifestyles.
Today we are celebrating a time in our church’s history when leaders were bold enough to free the church from its false teachings and bad practices. Nearly 500 years ago, the church was both enslaved and sought to enslave its faithful people. But leaders like Martin Luther came along and worked to free the church from itself and those it served. Luther condemned practices like indulgences which claimed that people’s souls might be bought out of purgatory. He also translated the Bible from Latin into German so that more people could be exposed to God’s Word than just the elect priests. He corrected false teachings such as works righteousness that stated a person’s eternal salvation was conditional on how good they were here on earth. He asserted and was supported by Scripture itself that faith in Christ is the key to salvation. Our works do not save us…it is God’s grace and faith in Christ that saves us. The church, and us, needed to be reminded of these foundational teachings after centuries of false teachings. We needed to be able to read the Scripture ourselves to see how the church was abusing its teachings. Luther wasn’t the only reformer but certainly a leading one, so much so that our entire denomination was built on his methods and teachings.
Luther no doubt understood the value and importance of freedom, both personally and corporately within the church. As learned monk well-versed in scripture, he also no doubt took his cue from the leaders within Scripture. He certainly wasn’t the first person to place a high value on freedom! No, as we heard in our readings assigned for this week, there were several scriptural leaders who espoused the importance of freedom. In his letter to the Romans, Paul encouraged us not to become slaves to the Law. Just as our works and good deeds don’t ensure eternal salvation, so too the Law won’t ensure it either. The Law won’t set us free…in fact, quite the opposite! But faith in Christ is what sets us free. Free to do what? Free to serve our neighbor, as Luther famously wrote.
In our psalm for today, David frees us from our slavery to fear with his equally famous opening statement: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” We NEED to hear these words! We NEED to know that God never abandons us in our times of struggle. Fear can be a great and formidable taskmaster, ever eager to enslave us in its snares. Fear can and will overwhelm us unless we remind ourselves these powerful words of affirmation. There is no more reassuring verse in all of scripture than the 10th verse of that psalm in which God speaks: “Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The new covenant outlined in our 1st lesson comes awfully close in reassurance. Oh, that we didn’t have to be taught the Word of the Lord! If only it were inherently imprinted on our hearts so that we didn’t have to go through the agonizing hours and hours of learning it! But wait…it HAS been! God’s covenant HAS been imprinted on our hearts as the prophet Jeremiah declared: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” These are great words of comfort…great words of freedom! We don’t need to be taught God’s love…we just need to “be still” every once in a while and listen to God’s love that is already in our hearts! What powerful words of freedom!
As we reflect on freedom and the value each of us places on it, let us be mindful of the great leaders of Scripture and the great church reformers like Martin Luther. Let us add value to freedom by encouraging it, fighting for it, and promoting it as well as fighting and discouraging all the forces of slavery in this world. Let us help others to know freedom, true and lasting freedom, by helping them to…know the love of God.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.