In Need of Freedom - John 8:31-36; Ps. 46
Reformation Sunday / 24th Sunday after Pentecost: Oct. 30, 2016
John 8: 31-36
Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” They 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’?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains remble with tumult.
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.
Happy Reformation Day! How good it is to celebrate. To bake our special foods, and dress in period clothes; to sing the quintessential Lutheran hymn, and hang the beautiful picture of the Luther Rose; to commemorate that 499 years ago tomorrow God began a transformative work of Reformation in God’s church.
But lest we get too caught up in the party attitude, and mistake the purpose of our gathering today, let us remember one important thing about celebration, and particularly the celebration of reformation. If all we are celebrating is what happened in the past, we are seriously missing the point. To really participate in the party we have to know why it matters for us.
We have to know why we need reformation – not 499 years ago, but today.
Heritage can be inspiring, but it can also be a powerful sedative. It can lull us with a sense of the security of our inheritance that requires no new reformation in our lives.
Just consider the audience in our gospel passage today. There they were, in the presence of Jesus – the Word of God made flesh among us – and the text tells us that these were those among the Jews who had believed in him. They were experiencing the power and authority of his proclamation in their midst, and they were responding… but when He offers them the astounding promise of FREEDOM, they are brought up short.
“We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone. What do you mean by saying, ‘You will be made free’?”
Jesus’s promise that “the truth will make you free” sounded like a knock on their heritage.
Freedom, as a state of being, is something to be celebrated. But being made free… well that declares that we are not free already. And most reasonable people will take offence if you call them a slave.
I expect we all have that instinct. We probably feel no particular compulsion to protect the heritage of Abraham, but freedom… that’s a different story.
For one thing, we are inheritors of the Reformation – we have been freed from the chains of medieval works righteousness and know that our salvation comes through faith.
What is more, we are residents of the land of the free. Freedom is part of our national DNA, and we are trained from the cradle to fight back against anyone who tries to violate our God-given right to freedom.
So, if we are honest with ourselves, we can’t just dismiss the offence that is expressed in our gospel, because it is offensive to us as well. We don’t want to hear that we need to be freed, that we are slaves to sin. Because receiving the promise that “the truth will make us free” means that we have to confront the truth of what we need to be freed from – we have to acknowledge what is means to serve sin.
At its core, sin is not about immorality; it is not about bad decisions or bad actions or even inactions. Fundamentally, sin is a condition of the soul. And the underlying condition of our sin nature is the desire to be in control. Or, put another way, sin is the lie that we willingly believe that our lives belong to us. Sin is the desire to claim “freedom” from God’s control.
We don’t want to be “set free” because we think we already are. We think freedom means the right to make our own decisions, and we don’t welcome the destruction of that illusion. When it comes right down to it, Jesus’s promise in this gospel doesn’t really sound like good news.
Which is why it is so important to hear this gospel text in the company of today’s Psalm. Psalm 46 is my all-time favorite Psalm. It is not the most celebratory, or beautiful, of the Psalms, but it speaks to me in a way that confronts my desire to be in control, and reminds me why letting go of that control really is freedom.
It has that impact because of one devastating, comforting 8-word phrase: “Be still and know that I am God.”
So simple, but so desperately hard when all the world is telling us to move.
Responsibilities, and anxieties, and activities fill our days and nights, and there is never enough time for them all. Even our minds can’t be still when we are constantly bombarded with information, and calls for our attention, and warnings about all the threats in our world against which we must protect ourselves.
The constant noise, and rush, and fear has felt particularly overwhelming this election season, but the reality is that things won’t magically calm down on November 9. Tranquility is not a hallmark of our culture. Our culture, as well as our human nature, demands that we take action to make sure we get what we want. Stillness sounds too vulnerable, too passive. How can we keep ourselves safe if we let go of control?
The command to be still feels so unrealistic. Does God know what our lives look like? What our hearts feels like? How can we possibly just be still?
But the thing is, this command to be still doesn’t come from Psalm 23. It’s not accompanied by an invitation to lie down beside the still waters for the restoration of our souls. It comes in the midst of a description of pure chaos. Hear again the images of our powerlessness from this psalm:
We will not fear…
though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with tumult.
The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
God utters his voice, the earth melts.
Pretty terrifying images aren’t they? Roaring waters. Trembling mountains. Melting earth. When the psalmist speaks God’s command to “be still” this is not an invitation to the rest of shavasana at the end of an hour of calming yoga. This is a command to be still in the face of a tsunami, and an earthquake, and a military battle – all at once.
The command to be still comes in the midst of all the threats that scream to us: “You need to take control; you need to protect yourself; you can’t trust anyone, perhaps even including God; you can only trust yourself.”
Because that is what our slavery to sin really is. It is the fear-based lie that we can only trust ourselves. The lie that we know how to keep ourselves happy and safe, and that we somehow have the power to do just that.
But, terrifying as the tsunamis, and earthquakes, and wars in our lives are… at least they reveal the lie. They reveal that we don’t actually have control.
We can’t control the ways our bodies break down and betray us.
We can’t control the co-workers who scheme against us.
We can’t control the family members who are too busy for us, or for church.
We can’t control the unjust assumptions people make about us, or people who look like us.
We can’t control whether new people walk through the doors of this church and decide to stay.
We certainly can’t control the politicians who push agendas that scare us.
We can’t really control our safety, or our children’s safety, or our nation’s safety. Not all the time. Not the way we want to.
And it can be terrifying to just be still and face our own powerlessness. But it is in full recognition of that terror that Psalm 46 tells us to not just “be still,” but rather to “be still, and know that I am God.”
That is the transformative, the reforming comfort of Psalm 46. We have to let go of our addiction to control, but we don’t let go to the chaos.
We let go to a God who invites us to know God’s capacity to actually be God.
We let go to a God who invites us to KNOW God’s capacity to ACTUALLY BE GOD.
This is something more than “let go and let God.” This is “let go and KNOW God” – Do you know the God of Psalm 46?
Do you know God’s capacity to be our refuge and strength in the midst of trouble?
Do you know God’s provision of an immovable city in which God dwells with us?
Do you know God’s strength to demolish the wars and weapons by which those who seems so strong to us seek to control the earth?
Do you know the God who is more powerful than the earthquakes, and the oceans, and all the things that make us feel weak and afraid?
Do you know the God you trust enough to let go of the illusion of control?
Do you know this God? Because that relationship is the freedom into which the truth of God’s Word through Christ will set us free. The freedom of knowing that we can’t rely on ourselves for our own salvation – whether than be the salvation of our souls or the salvation from the threats that crowd around us and invade our lives.
We NEED God. And when we can be still and know that need, everything changes.
We are no longer slaves to sin and fear. The Son has given us a permanent place in the abiding peace of God, and we get to KNOW the strength and refuge we have in God.
This is reformation. This is the truth that re-forms us, and re-forms us for a purpose: to be God’s church is this quaking, flooding, warring world.
Because reformation is not just for us. The call to stillness is not a call to permanent passivity.
No – we have been set free. Set free from the lie that our own efforts protect and save us. So now we can live in the kind of love through which God acts to re-form the world.