Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Son Sets You Free

Sermon on John 8:31-36
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 27, 2013 (The Festival of the Reformation)

In the Bible, the sort of slavery that is being talked about is different from the brutal racially-based slavery which most Western nations, including our own, imposed on  those who were forcibly brought from Africa, in which slaves were often prohibited from being taught to read and write, and were only to do the most menial of labor.  In ancient times, a slave was usually treated, not as an animal, but as an important part of the household. The pedagogues, those who taught the master’s children, were slaves, and to do that they needed to be educated men themselves.  The household steward, who kept the books and was responsible for seeing to it that contracts were kept and bills were paid, was a slave.  Slaves of the king often had a considerable amount of authority, because a king’s household includes his entire nation.  Joseph was Pharaoh’s slave, but in Pharaoh’s name he ruled Egypt and was singlehandedly responsible for the survival of Egypt as well as many other nearby areas, including Canaan, during a famine.  Daniel was Nebuchadnezzar’s slave, but he was also his most trusted confidant and, in fact, ruled the entire Babylonian Empire when Nebuchadnezzar went insane.  The word slave had a very different meaning in most ancient cultures than it did a couple of centuries ago in Europe and in other lands settled by Europeans, including the United States.

The primary similarities between ancient slaves and the more recent racist forms of slavery, however, were that the slave was not free to leave and seek other employment, and he would never be considered an heir of anything in the household (except in the rare case where the head of the household was childless and adopted a slave as his own, as almost happened in the case of Abraham before Ishmael and Isaac were born).  It is those two aspects of slavery, in particular, which Jesus speaks of in today’s text.

If you’re a slave, you can’t leave.  That’s what sin does to you.  You can’t leave.  You may be able to overcome one particular sinful action, and that’s a good thing.  But there is nothing you can do about your underlying sinful condition.  Very often, conquering one sinful behavior makes you enslavement to sin worse, because it leads to the sin of pride.  You’ve done a good thing in overcoming a habitual sin, and, hey, that means you’re a pretty good person, right?  Well, thinking you’re a pretty good person makes it harder for you to see yourself as a poor, miserable sinner.  Now, of course, I’m not saying that we should be careless about our various pet sins.  Sin hurts our neighbor, and so changing our behavior is necessary in order to serve our neighbor in love.  But it doesn’t help our underlying condition, it only masks the symptoms.  And because the symptoms are masked, you no longer think you need any help.  You end up willingly participating in slavery.  As the Jews said, we have never been slaves of anyone!  Ironically, that statement itself proves just how deeply enslaved these men were.  (Not to mention that it’s factually untrue.  Egypt, the Philistines, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome had all held the Israelites captive at one time or another.  But I digress.)

The condition of slavery in ancient times was actually not very different from the situation of the master’s children.  Children also are not free to leave, and while they remain children they cannot benefit from their inheritance.  The difference, however, is that children eventually grow up and can choose their own way in life, and when their parents die their money and possessions become theirs.  A slave may in some cases be loved as dearly as a child, and in many cases he will be as educated and capable as the master’s own sons and daughters, but he will never inherit the estate.  He will still be treated as if he were a child his whole life, and he will die in that status.  He will never be given the freedom and the authority that comes with growing into adulthood.

As far as God’s kingdom goes, our slavery to sin excludes us from becoming heirs.   In fact, we’re rebellious children who have run after another master.  We who were children in God’s household rebelled as if we were mere slaves, as if God’s discipline were mere punishment rather than being intended as a learning and growing experience, and so we ran away to serve other masters.  Freedom is not freedom if you become dependent upon someone or something else, and that’s what happened to humanity: the sons, by rejecting their Father’s discipline, became easy prey for sin, death, and the devil.  Children who would have become heirs, became slaves with no hope of freedom.

And so the true heir of the Kingdom, the one who is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, became a slave for us.  He chose the path that would lead Him right into our enslavement.  He had everything, because as the Word of the Father, He is the Heir of the Father’s glory and love.  And yet He willingly stooped down, taking on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, and became obedient (like a slave) unto death, even death upon a cross.

But the Son of God Himself cannot be a slave by definition.  And so the chains were broken, the walls knocked over, and the prisoners were released.  Only the one who has the authority that comes from the Father Himself can declare slaves to be, not only free men, but heirs of the Kingdom.

The problem, however, is that our slavery to sin, death, and the devil is a tricky thing.  It actually looks like freedom, at least at first.  And to those who have managed to get good at hiding their sin, it is extremely deceptive.  The idea that we can spiritually control our own destiny and earn our own freedom is what led those who were enslaved to sin to become Pharisees during Jesus’ day, monks or buyers of indulgences in Luther’s day, and pietists (those who measure their closeness to God by their own devotion to Him rather than by what He has done for them) in our own day.  But it’s all an illusion.  It’s like decorating a prison cell with wallpaper and fragrant flowers so that we don’t have to see the bars or smell the stench of unwashed prisoners, and using lots of spices, the good china, and decorative sprigs of parsley to distract ourselves from the fact that gruel is the main dish.

It’s only the Son, the Heir, who can share His inheritance with us.  And that’s what He does.  Instead of letting us fool ourselves about our own status by hiding our chains from ourselves, He breaks them.  Instead of allowing us to cover up the stench of our sin with perfumes and flowers, He washes us clean.  And instead of allowing us to pretend that the gruel isn’t so bad, He feeds us with the finest wheat and the best wine, that of His own body and blood.  The Son has sent his messengers to tell you that you are free, and that you are welcome back home.  You are free, indeed.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

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