A sermon for Reformation Day 10/30/2022
Recently, I was reacquainted with an old classmate of mine from high school through our Class of 89 group on Facebook. It had been 33 years since I had seen him. He looked very happy in the photos he shared of himself with his family, but the photos also gave me pause. Have I aged as much as he had?? I mean I look in the mirror every day and though I definitely have mornings when I glance painfully at my sight and just want to go back to bed, I really don’t see a marked difference from day to day. Was I missing something?? You can save me from the compliments later. 😁 But truth be told – most of us just get up and do life – we take each day as it comes unaware of the changes taking place within us and happening to us with every experience because we are too busy experiencing it! It’s only when we have some distance from the moment that we become aware that something has changed. The more life we have behind us, the less aware we are of just how adept we are at encountering and adapting to the world around us. It just happens – that is how life works – until it doesn’t, and you realize something is amiss.
Something was amiss when God made a new covenant with the houses of Israel and Judah. All would know God from the least to the greatest with their iniquities forgiven and their sin remembered no more. God wanted to be sure nothing came between God and God’s people.
Something was amiss 505 years ago tomorrow, when Martin Luther found it necessary to nail his 95 Theses to the castle doors calling for an end to the separation of the people from God, this time by none other than the Church.
Today, Reformation Day – we celebrate and give thanks for God’s continued reformation and renewal of the Church and our relationship with Him, especially when things go amiss.
Something was amiss in Jerusalem where we join Jesus today. He has been teaching in the temple about his identity as the light of the world. “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) The Pharisees push back, questioning his authority. So not wanting to let a good opportunity to challenge us go by – Jesus turns to his followers who – we are told – still believed in him – and tells them that their faith alone does not make them his disciples. It’s as if he wants to be the unpopular guy.
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Yes, they may be believers, but if they are to truly become his disciples, they must remain in His word.
Now – we know that Jesus is God’s Word made flesh, the Word God speaks and, through whom God created the world. Jesus embodies, reveals, and teaches God’s word. The word continue is translated from the Greek “meno” which means to abide in or remain with. Therefore, those who want to be His disciples must remain in Jesus and allow His words to govern their actions. Only then will they know the truth that frees.
We hear & know God’s word through the Gospel. We describe “Gospel” in a variety of ways – salvation, grace, forgiveness, life. Today’s passage adds another way to speak of the Gospel – truth and freedom. The kind of words to write on your heart. Inspiring words, good words. But they are also hard words.
Hard because they all assume need and we don’t like to admit to needing anything. The one who values salvation knows that he or she needs saving. The one for whom grace is important is aware of the need for grace. Forgiveness implies sin. Life implies one is not really living. Freedom means we need to be made free. Truth – well what is this truth? We have lots of truths!
Jesus promises his followers that if those who believe remain in his word, they will know the truth, and the truth will make them free, but as is so often the way in the Gospel of John, Jesus is misunderstood. Just as the Samaritan woman at the well thought that Jesus was talking about literal water rather than living water, His listeners immediately assume that He is suggesting that they are slaves who need to be freed from their earthly masters.
Their response is one of perplexity, indignance. What sounded like Good News, a positive development – now clangs loudly on the ears.
“Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaait a minute, wait a minute! What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?
“We are free. Nobody tells us what to do. We’re in charge of our own lives. Why do you think we need you to make us free?” Confident of their heritage and identity, they are sure that they are already free.
Now, admittedly there is a certain absurdity to their reply. The entire book of Exodus centers on their enslavement. The most central part of their story hinges on God leading the Jewish people out of slavery through the Red Sea and the wilderness into the promised land. It would seem his followers have developed blind spots to their history of enslavement and are oblivious to what enslaves them now.
Jesus promptly challenges their claim, pointing not to their heritage but to their actions: “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). Because they have followed their own desires instead of God’s word, they have become slaves to sin.
But here’s my question: are we really all that different? Which words of Jesus stuck with you, today? Those that spoke to Truth & Freedom or of Sin & Enslavement.
When have you lived without sin? How does it feel to be called out as a slave to it?
How often do we honestly admit that we aren’t perfect, that our life isn’t perfect? When was the last time you willingly admitted you were wrong, or for that matter, your need, your hurt, your brokenness?
Especially today, when there is so much cultural pressure to be right – all the time – to act as if you have it all together – a great life, excellent job, wonderful relationships, a brilliant future. Greatness is an expectation for just about everything. You know the relentless pursuit of happiness and all…
And when we look in the mirror, we are much more apt to say things that might sound familiar if you were here last week… God, I thank you that I am not like those thieves, rogues, adulterers, snobs, fakes, conservatives, liberals, democrats, republicans, those invading “onians…” reckless spenders, greedy financiers, creation plunderers, snowflakes, wokes, racists, communists, socialists, fascists… or whatever is so “obviously” your opposite.
We don’t like to think of ourselves as righteous, we just happen to know that we are right. It is so much easier to justify ourselves and blame others for our circumstance than to admit that there is room not just for growth and improvement but also a need for help, repentance, and forgiveness.
When we look in the mirror, we fail to see our own shortcomings and our own participation in systems and ways that cause harm to others. Our blind spots hold us captive. We fail to see the truth.
“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
Freedom, as a state of being, is something to be celebrated. But being made free… well that declares that we are not free already. That we are not our own person, that we are not in control, that we are enslaved.
Much like the Jews who insisted to Jesus that they had “never been slaves to anyone,” our current reality looks nothing like slavery. Thanks to our United States Constitution and the amendments that reform it freedom is in our DNA.
We like our freedoms and for that matter, our truths (emphasis on the plural). What’s more, we like them on our terms.
We don’t need to be “set free” because “duh” – we already are. We are free to make our own decisions, free to define who we are by our standards, and free to manifest our own destiny. We are even free to choose our own truths and get on with our life just as we always have. What more could we want?
Take a look in the mirror again and this time look deep. How about an honest, deep, and abiding relationship with God?
“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
At its core, sin is not about immorality; it is not about bad decisions or bad actions or even inaction. Sin is not what we do, but the reason behind why we do it. Sin is a condition of our soul. And the underlying condition of our sin nature is the desire to be in control. Or, put another way, sin is the desire to claim “freedom” from God’s control. Sin is about estrangement from God. The absence of God in our lives.
The freedom Jesus is speaking of is not a freedom from oppression but rather – freedom from our estrangement from GOD – our enslavement to sin.
You may not think of yourself as a slave to anything, especially sin – but there are ways of being in this world that feel like we are shackled, trapped, in bondage. When we follow our own truths and pursue our own desires instead of God’s word, we will inevitably become slaves to sin.
When we align ourselves to dogmas, practices, addictions, parties, political figures, or any of the prolific and divisive isms that pervade our culture and society; when we rest securely (or not so much) in our retirement accounts and gold holdings or real estate then we’ve placed our trust in someone or something other than the righteousness of God.
If our ways lead us to seek power and superiority over others rather than being on the side of the weak, the ostracized, and the cast out – then we are captive to the systems of control and oppression of this world over the compassion and mercy of God.
When we ensconce our identity and sense of worth in the cultural and social trappings of this world – how much money we have, where we live, our professional, social, or marital status, our professional or athletic accomplishments, or our physical appearance – we are slaves to believing the mistruths of this world instead of God’s Truth.
We think our many “truths” and freedoms are the essence of our identity; we think they give meaning and control to our life but in reality, they are traps – they shackle rather than enlarge our life.
As long as we continue to live as if who we are is rooted in what we do, what we have, and what other people think about us, we will remain trapped by judgments, opinions, evaluations, and condemnations. Theologian Henri Nouwen wrote that the only way we can ever experience true freedom is to claim our identity as beloved children of God.
The substantial freedoms that any of us enjoy in this world quickly pale in comparison to the ultimate freedom that Jesus addresses with his teaching and through his life, death, and resurrection. Because when it comes to what is most important in the scope of eternity compared to what we hold as important in the brokenness of now, we are not free at all. We are slaves.
Slaves to a world that wants to define our worth on its terms. Slaves to control, doubt and the self-defeating cycle of proving ourselves worthy.
When we turn away from God and the ways of Jesus, the world will gladly step in and take over. We don’t even notice it happening at first, but as time goes on – we cede more and more of our truth, more and more of our freedom – to sin. And then all of sudden it hits us – we look in the mirror and don’t recognize or like what we see. Something is amiss. We’ve lost direction. We are estranged from God.
Knowing the truth means knowing Jesus Christ. Really knowing Jesus. We can study a person’s teachings and know all about their life, their habits, and their history, but that doesn’t mean we know the person. To know them we must spend time with them, listen to them, and share ourselves with them. As Jesus prays in John 17:21, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
We become disciples by remaining with Jesus, staying in relationship with him, and letting his words and his presence challenge and change us; reform and renew us.
This is what makes Jesus’ promise of freedom a bit of a mixed blessing. Because to claim the good news of Truth and Freedom we are first made to acknowledge that we on our own are not free. To be free we must first be honest with ourselves before God through God’s merciful free gift of returning to Him – repentance.
Before God and one another we humble ourselves and we confess that we are captive to sin and we cannot free ourselves; realizing again and again that there is nothing we can do to make ourselves free from the forces of sin and death, from the forces in the world and in ourselves that defy God and defy God’s ultimate power and divinity and we ask for and receive God’s mercy.
When we genuinely confess each week, we become painfully aware that we need so much – salvation, grace, forgiveness, life, truth and freedom. We need the Gospel. We need God’s Truth.
Jesus is God’s truth. He exposes the hatred, the selfishness, and the lies that enslave us. He does not merely forgive our sins; he liberates us from them, making us free to follow him instead, emulating his love and compassion and grace and mercy for all people.
You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
When we acknowledge that we are captive to the cycle of sin then Jesus’ words beam with the bright light of hope for eternity. When we are humble enough to recognize our true circumstance, these words sing of gospel truth and the great good news that it is.
For those of you looking for freedom in this place of worship, look to the cross of Jesus Christ. The Holy Cross and all that was shown and offered and accomplished through it is the one and only symbol we need of our surpassing and eternal freedom.
For those of you searching for identity you will find it most clearly in the baptismal font where you were drowned to sin and raised to live again, claimed and named as a redeemed child of God – the most important truth any of us could ever hope to profess.
You will know the truth and the truth will make you free.
Still searching for the true truth and real freedom? Look in the mirror – Jesus has claimed and freed you. Nothing can come between you and God.
Thanks be to God and to God be the glory!