Sunday, July 4, 2010

Don't Lose Your Freedom!

Texts: Jeremiah 34:8-22; Galatians 5:1-15

LET ME WISH YOU A VERY happy and grateful Independence Day.

How blessed we are to enjoy the freedoms and privileges of living in the United States of America! This nation was founded on the principle that our rights and liberties are inalienable gifts of the one Creator God and that government exists to protect and preserve those rights, not to dole them out by its own authority. Never, never should we take our freedom for granted. Always and forever must we watch and work to maintain our liberties, whether we're struggling against an intrusive government, against overreaching institutions, or against our own self-indulgence and complacency. Other nations have benefited from America's principles of economic, religious, and personal freedom, but our land is still the last best hope of liberty in this world. If America were to fall into tyranny and slavery, we wouldn't suffer alone; the darkness would fall on all nations of the earth.

But, brothers and sisters in Christ, terrible as it would be for us to lose our freedom here in the United States of America, it would be nothing to the eternal disaster we'd suffer if we were to lose our freedom in Christ.

St. Paul's Letter to the Galatians has been called a testament to Christian liberty. But strangely enough, it's not filled with joyous, God-praising, send-up-the-Roman-candles celebration. No, all the way through it's about the strictest rebuke to God's people to be found anywhere outside of the Old Testament prophets. Why? Because the members of the Galatian church weren't celebrating their freedom in Christ. No, they were on the verge of heading back into slavery! In the first verse of our passage, the apostle writes, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." This message isn't just for the disciples who lived in the first century A.D.; it's also for us and for any other Christian person who might be tempted to let their spiritual freedom go.

To understand what the Holy Spirit is saying to us, we need to know how the institution of slavery worked in the ancient world, and especially in Israel. First of all, God never established slavery as something that was good in itself. There were pro-slavery people in these United States who claimed that in the 19th century, but they were wrong. There are anti-Christian, anti-Bible folks who claim that now in the 21st century, and they're wrong, too. Slavery in the ancient world was a human accommodation to the evils and difficulties of the human condition, and the Law of God regulated it so those evils wouldn't bear so hardly on those who were enslaved.

There were two general kinds of slavery. One was the forced servitude you got when one nation defeated another in war. It's like when Goliath challenged the Israelites and said if he beat Israel's champion, Israel would have to serve the Philistines, and if Israel's champion beat him, the Philistines would serve Israel. Then there was economic slavery, or bond-servitude, where a person would put his time and labor under the mastery of another person for a given period to pay back a debt or just to keep himself alive. Sometimes, bond-slavery was involuntary, as when a thief would be sentenced to work for his victim to make restitution, or when your creditors would be given the right to sell you and your entire family into slavery, to pay back what you owed them. Today we have bankruptcy for situations like that, but in the ancient world it was unthinkable that a debt would be dismissed by a third party like a bankruptcy court. Either you worked it off, or your creditor forgave you.

But the Law given through Moses said that if you had a slave who was a fellow-Hebrew, you could make him serve you only up to six years. The seventh year, you were to let him go free, regardless of how much he still owed. This reflected the fact that God almighty had set all Israel free from bondage to Pharaoh when He liberated them from Egypt. As they had been released from the yoke of the Egyptians so they could worship God and enjoy His Sabbath rest, so, too, their fellow Hebrews must be released from servitude at the beginning of their sabbatical year.

Nevertheless, slavery was something you wanted to avoid if at all possible. If you were a Hebrew and yoked under it, you counted the days till your seventh year would come around and you'd regain your liberty. If you were an Israelite enslaved in another country or a foreigner enslaved to an Israelite, you prayed for the day when your armies would march in and set you free.

So in Galatians chapter 15, St. Paul warns the Galatian church that if they let themselves be circumcised, it would be a return to spiritual slavery; Christ will be of no value to them at all. Today, if you're the average non-Jewish guy in America, circumcision is something your parents decided to have done or not have done to you when you were an infant, for health or aesthetic reasons. It has nothing to do with moral and ethical obligations or with one's relationship to God. But in Paul's day, it was the sign written in every Jewish male's body that he was pledged to keep the whole law of Moses down to the last I-dot and t-cross. It meant he hoped to find his blessedness and salvation in his own obedience. If a Gentile convert submitted to Jewish circumcision he voluntarily called down on himself all the covenant curses the law demanded if he didn't perfectly obey all the covenant decrees, statutes, and ordinances.

We see the effect of covenant curses in our reading from Jeremiah 34. For years past, the masters of Israel and Judah had disobeyed the law about freeing their fellow Hebrews after six years. They'd been keeping them in perpetual bondage. And now, with the Babylonians laying siege to Jerusalem, King Zedekiah and all the slaveholding people of Jerusalem made a solemn covenant to set all their fellow Jews free immediately, and never to enslave their countrymen and women at all again. When you made a covenant in those days, you didn't just lay your hand on a copy of the Torah and swear to do something; no, a covenant was made in blood. We see in verse 18 how a calf was slaughtered and split in two with the pieces laid on the ground with room to walk between them. And every man who made that covenant walked between those bloody pieces and swore before God that if he did not keep his word, that the Lord should slaughter him and make him like that dead, dismembered calf.

The Lord took this oath of theirs seriously. When these perjurers changed their minds and forced their former slaves back into bondage, God swore that He would bring back the Babylonians and give the oathbreakers into their hands for death and disgrace. They had called their own blood onto their heads, and blood it would be.

In the same way, circumcision cut a covenant of blood between each male Jew and the God of Israel. The shed blood declared, "May the Lord shed my blood unto death if I do not keep and obey all of His holy law."

But as Paul points out earlier in this letter, the law, holy and righteous as it was, could never bring anyone to the blessedness of God; rather, through our inability to keep it, it brought down the Old Covenant curses upon us.

You have probably heard from your preachers in the past that the law of Moses was made up of the ceremonial, the civil, and the moral codes. Circumcision bound a person to obey all three.

The ceremonial law set forth how the God of Israel was to be worshipped, and in the fullness of time God revealed that all the sacrifices and holy days looked forward to the perfect Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. With the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Christ, the ceremonial law was fulfilled and superseded. There is no longer any need for it.

Nevertheless, if any Christian should take upon himself Jewish circumcision, he would be obligating himself-- and his household-- to observe and participate in the temple rituals, turning his back on Jesus Christ who had come and set him free.

The civil law set out how things should be arranged politically and judicially in the commonwealth of God's holy people. God was Israel's true King, and they were to be righteous before Him. Thus the penalties that seem so severe to us, like stoning someone to death for adultery or breaking the Sabbath. These laws were designed to keep the nation pure and holy before God and the nations. In that Israel would be a fit channel for the coming of the Messiah, by whom all peoples would be blessed. Then Jesus our Messiah did come, and God made a new covenant in His blood and opened up citizenship in the holy nation to all people, Jew and Gentile alike. Ethnic Israel no longer was God's exclusive chosen people. And so Christ the civil code of the Law of Moses was fulfilled and superseded.

But if anyone should take upon himself Jewish circumcision, he would obligate himself to follow all the civil rules and bear all the penalties set out in the books of the Law.

That leaves the moral law, summed up as "Love your neighbor as yourself," and it binds all humanity, Jew and Gentile alike. Those who love the Lord can, like King David in Psalm 119, look into the law of God and marvel at its perfection, for it reflects the very glory and righteousness of God. But it also shows up how far short we fall of His glory. Never, ever, ever can we come anywhere near God's perfect holiness-- but that's the standard we have to attain, if we expect to gain life and blessing by keeping the moral law. In chapter 3 of Galatians Paul demonstrates that the law never could impart life to us. Rather, it was like a jailer who kept us locked up until Christ should come and declare us not guilty through faith in Him. Here in chapter 5 Paul says that by faith in Christ we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. Christ has come and taken the covenant curses on Himself. He paid for our lawbreaking with His sinless blood. So now the moral code has not been superseded or set aside, but in Christ we depend not upon our own obedience to gain blessedness with God, but upon His. Now the law is our friend and guide as our faith expresses itself through love to our neighbor and to God.

That is, if we truly are trusting in Christ alone and not taking on a yoke of slavery again. I doubt anyone here, male or female, loses sleep at night wondering if he ought to undergo Jewish circumcision to make sure he's in good with God. But we have a hundred different ways we try to return ourselves and others to the yoke of spiritual slavery.

Do you ever catch yourself saying, "Oh, she's a pretty good person. She does a lot of good things. God wouldn't keep her out of heaven just because she doesn't believe in Christ!" You're binding that person in slavery under the law.

Have you ever said, "I just can't forgive myself for what I did to him"? Or worse, "I can never forgive him for what he did to me"? That's rejecting the freedom you have in Christ and returning to slavery under the law.

How about the people who think that following Jesus is about doing good things and being good people so God will be pleased with them? Maybe sometimes those people are you and me! That is a turning away from the mercies and merits of Christ and obligating ourselves again to the law.

What about those who preach that the cross of Christ only served to show us how we should love other people, with nothing about how His righteous blood turned aside the wrath of God against our sin? In this way they would seek to abolish the offense of the cross. For it is offensive to our hyper-tolerant age to assert that Christ's sacrifice is the only way for anyone to come into proper relationship with our God and Father. But when we turn our backs on the blood atonement and preach the cross as merely a good example, we throw ourselves back into the clutches of the law.

We certainly are called to obedience, but obedience to the truth that is in Jesus Christ. He died for you, He rose for you, He sent His Holy Spirit to live in you and guide you. In Christ we are free to do what is good, to fulfill God's will as we could not when we in bondage to sin and the law. The sin that remains in us tries to get us to misuse our freedom in Christ to indulge our sinful natures. To assert our own rights. To abuse one another, even hurting our brothers and sisters in the church. Cling to your divine liberty and do not be enslaved to sin in the name of a false freedom! In Christ you are free to "Love your neighbor as yourself," because He lives in you, He loves your neighbor through you, and sets you free to do wonderful things in His name you never imagined you could do before.

On this Independence Day, be grateful for the earthly freedom God has given you in these United States. But even more, be grateful and praise His name forever for the eternal freedom He has given you in Jesus Christ His Son. This world will try to tempt you to find your redemption in keeping rules, codes, and laws, but that is the way back to slavery. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free: Free to be justified, free to serve, free to love. Amen.

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