This was the third in a six-week assignment with the Elk Falls, Longton, and Elk City United Methodist Churches.
As it came on the 4th of July weekend, I was faced with a dilemma, one that I think many ministers, preachers, and lay speakers have. How do you speak of freedom in a political sense in a church? The problem, that I didn’t sense fifteen years ago when I gave this message but which I think is far too common today, is that many pastors and too many laity put God at the head of our armed forces. As one general said a couple of years ago, our God is better than their God. The only problem with this statement is that their God is our God.
Freedom is more than political or military superiority. I wonder when we are going to learn that?
So, here is the message that I presented on the 5th Sunday after Pentecost, 2 July 1995. The Scriptures (from the New Common Lectionary) are 1 Kings 19: 15 – 21, Galatians 5: 1, 13 – 25, and Luke 9: 51 – 62.
What is freedom? That may be one of the most difficult concepts man has ever been asked to define. Freedom could be considered one’s ability to choose and guide one’s own life. To a sixteen-year-old, freedom is a driver’s license. Freedom to worship at a church of one’s choosing, our very presence here today, was one of the reasons this country was founded. I really think that the political debates that we listen to over the course of the next few months, nor matter what is actually said, will center on a definition of freedom. (As I noted in “Another One” where I related a story about my life, this story is one that I have used in the past as well. This was the first time that I put the idea of freedom into the context of turning 16 and getting one’s driver’s license. I expanded the story on other occasions.)
What is the cost of freedom? That is the hidden question. As we have discovered at some point in time, becoming freedom does not come cheap. To the sixteen-year old, having a driver’s license means nothing if there is no gas in the car, or for that matter, if there is no car. When we leave home and are finally free, we find out that we must still pay the rent and utilities.
I grew up on Air Force bases in the fifties and sixties and the price of freedom was seen by the B-52 bombers that flew from some of those bases. As long as those planes sat on the runway with the bomb bay doors open, we knew we were safe. For those planes were the alert planes, scheduled only to fly if we went to war with the Soviet Union. The cost of freedom in those days was eternal vigilance.
But today, I speak of a different freedom. What is it to live a life without sin? But what is the cost of that freedom? As Paul has written, in Christ we have our freedom from sin. But that freedom comes with a cost. To some, that cost and the freedom it gains is not worth the price. Faced with the perils and unknown of the wilderness in front of them and the Egyptian army behind them, the Israelites were willing to go back into slavery in Egypt rather than being free and becoming their own nation. In Exodus 14: 10 – 14 we read
When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they were in great fear. And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord; and they said to Moses, "Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians?’ For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness." And Moses said to the people, "Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today, for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still." (Exodus 14: 10 – 14)
Many people often think that being a Christian is dull and boring. In terms of early America, all we have to do is think of the Puritans and the seemingly humorless life they lead. Perhaps the Puritans, as we think of their lifestyle, overdid it the structure of life a bit. But we must realize that freedom without structure is a hollow freedom. In seeking the fruits of freedom without concern many people find out that their life is empty and without purpose. Without a structure, we allow sin to invade our lives. That is why the Israelites would have gone back to Egypt; there they had a familiar structure. It was the covenant that God offered them that provided the structure of freedom that they needed.
When we choose freedom, that is, when we choose to follow Christ, we choose a path from which we cannot turn back. In the passage from Luke, Jesus set his eyes on Jerusalem. We know that look; we have all seen it in others. It is the look of single-mindedness, of determination.
Jesus knew that his mission on this earth would only succeed when He went to Jerusalem and that nothing was going to stop him from that journey. Not even a village which ignored him.
The signers of the Declaration of Independence knew full well that signing that document put them on a single path. If the revolution was a success, they would have a new country. If the revolution failed, they would be hanged by the British as traitors. To them, freedom from England was well worth that price. And when the time came, there was no hesitation on their part to sign that document.
When Elijah came to Elisha and made him the offer to be his replacement, Elisha’s first response was hesitation. He thought that he would have time to say good-bye to his parents. That, of course, is the natural thing to do. Still, faced with the rebuke from Elijah, Elisha went forward. Elisha’s act of burning the yoke, killing his oxen, and using the fire to cook the food for his workers was as dramatic a step as the flourish John Hancock used when he signed the Declaration of Independence. Having destroyed all that was his previous life; Elisha could now go forward as Elijah’s successor.
William Barclay commented that "To Paul, a theology was not of the slightest use unless it could be lived out in the world." To John Wesley, your life had but one direction when you surrender it to Christ. That is why Jesus told the young man that he could not bury his father. He was not being callous or unconcerned about Jewish tradition. But if the young man was to follow Him, that path must be his first priority. When you choose to surrender your life to Christ, there is no other path you can follow; there is no other task that you can undertake.
The cost of freedom today is simple. Commit our lives to Christ. As Paul wrote some many times,
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me" (Galatians 2: 20)
We are no longer slaves to sin; no longer are we prisoners to the sins of the flesh but our lives are centered on Christ and we can go forward knowing that our freedom is truly that. And a life in Christ serves us well in our work, be it the factory, the schoolroom, the desk, or the farm, and in our play. By living in Christ, God becomes a part of our everyday life and that is a reason to celebrate.