I’d been talking to a couple about their upcoming wedding; and asking how they were doing with all the last-minute preparations that come along. And to this, the groom-to-be replied, “Well, I’m now on my ‘Tux Diet,’ if that’s what you mean!” What he meant, of course, is that he was trying very hard to lose enough weight to both fit into and look good in his tuxedo in time for his wedding day!
When I congratulated him on making the effort, he readily admitted that it hadn’t been easy, especially since along with making some serious adjustments to what he was eating, this process also involved a new and rather intense workout regimen at a local fitness center; which was fine, he said, except that sometimes even in working out there were temptations. Apparently, one day he’d been running on the treadmill, and of course, there are always TV screens playing in front of you as you’re doing that; and what should come up on the screen but a commercial for a particular fast-food chain… and the sight of a Big Mac in all its saturated fattened glory!
That in and of itself had, shall we say, kind of a disheartening effect (!); made all the worse when he glanced over at the man running next to him. He’s just shaking his head, perspiration dripping down his brow, and even as he’s trying to catch his breath, he’s saying aloud, “Why… do they have to… make that… look… so good!”
And we get that, don’t we? For you, it might be chocolate, or Ben and Jerry’s, or some other edible bit of decadence; but I suspect that even the most health-minded amongst us do understand just how tempting even the sight of something like that can be! At the same time, however, it’s worth noting that the Big Mac you receive at the average McDonald’s probably bears little or no resemblance to what you see on the commercials. To begin with, the advertising people have picked out the ideal bun, the pristine lettuce leaf and tomato slice and the perfectly prepared patty for that commercial, and then they cover it with preservatives and glossy chemicals to create the shiny image of the perfect burger. Moreover, they don’t show how squashed these burgers sometimes come to you out of the box, nor how the lettuce and sauce drip out over everywhere; and the less said about that so-called “pink slime,” the better! What you see in these ads is this perfectly stacked cheeseburger from paradise! Yes, it’s unrealistic, inauthentic and probably downright misleading, but that’s image that sells millions of burgers every year!
There’s a book by Mark Roberts entitled “Dare to Be True,” which is about the challenge we as Christians face in living a life of complete honesty; and he actually says that very often our lives are no more authentic than that picture of the perfect hamburger! He writes that too often we “try hard to make a good impression by looking better than we really are or acting nicer than we usually act… we act like ideal Christians at church, while we hide our pains and struggles. We suck in our guts… [and] we camouflage our faces… [while at the same time] we strive to cover up… our faults, fears, family secrets and failures. We create a meticulously manicured image for ourselves and we labor diligently to project and protect it.”
Yet, he goes on to say, “deep inside, we yearn for the freedom to be who we are, to be seen, warts and all, to share ourselves genuinely with others so that we might experience what it feels like to be understood and accepted.” We ache to be released from our struggles, sins and scars; we need to be liberated from the obsessions and addictions that rule our lives and from the fears that keep us from living fully. We simply want to be real, and authentic, what we’re supposed to be and not some strange, inaccurate image of ourselves.
We yearn to be free… truly free to be who we are.
So it is good news indeed that because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are free. Because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, we are promised not just the image of freedom, but freedom itself; the fulfillment of all the deepest longings of our hearts. As Jesus himself said, “…if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
This is a promise that comes to us in the 8th chapter of John, from which we read a few moments ago. However, to understand what’s being said here, you have to go back to the beginning of that chapter, which is the very moving account of the woman caught in adultery; and how Jesus, after challenging any of her accusers who were without sin to be first one to throw a stone at her, quite literally sets the woman free from her offense, telling her to go her way, and to “leave [her] life of sin.”
What’s interesting is that this is immediately followed by Jesus’ saying to them that he is “the light of the world;” that in following him, there is no walking in darkness because his is the light that leads to life. And of course this raises the ire of the Pharisees, and they proceed to argue “the validity of his testimony;” but in the end, Jesus simply says to those who would believe, “if you continue in my word… you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
So you see why we endeavored to tell “the rest of the story” in our worship this morning; because it’s in this context we really do get a sense of what Jesus is talking about when he speaks of being made free! First, by pardoning this woman bound for execution, Jesus shows that what he offers is freedom from judgment, shame and death. Then he talks about “the light of life” which is freedom from stumbling through life’s darkness; the freedom from having to dwell in your own personal muck and mire. And finally Jesus caps the whole thing off by adding that if you follow me (or, as “The Message” translates it), “if you stick with this, living out what I tell you… you will experience for yourselves the truth, and the truth will free you.”
You will be free… totally, genuinely, redemptively free.
You see, the truth that leads to genuine freedom is the truth of God’s revelation, as demonstrated to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if we are correct in saying that being free means being who it is we’re truly meant to be, rather than clinging to some false image of what the world wants or expects us to be, then it’s also true that we get there directly through God in Christ.
It’s kind of ironic when you think about it; mostly when we talk about freedom, it’s freedom apart from something; that is, the freedom from all constraints in life. You know, you can do what you want to do, go where you want to go, be what you want to be! But here, we’re being told that real freedom comes in putting your whole focus on one way of life and living.
I’m reminded of all the young people I’ve known over the years who graduated from high school and went off to college, only to become totally overwhelmed not so much by their course loads, but by the sheer amount of freedom they have! And why wouldn’t they? I mean, after 18 years of house rules, there’s suddenly all this independence with no more curfews, countless places to go, lots of people to be with, tons of parties all the time; and almost inevitably one of two things end up happening: either the student completely blows it academically (I had a friend many years ago who, after a wild year in higher education, announced to us that the university “had failed to renew his option.”); or else, they come to the sobering conclusion (or quite possibly, their parents come to the conclusion) that in order to make it through college, they would have to reel themselves in, get organized, start studying, and begin to pursue this new-found freedom responsibly!
I know, we can chalk a whole lot of this up to maturity and growing up; but on a deeper level, it really does speak to the very nature of our humanity. Truly, it’s how we’re wired: as people we yearn to be free; but the kind of freedom that exists wholly apart from something always leads to chaos! Actually, if you’re looking for a definition for sin, that’s a pretty good one: sin is what happens when we seek to live in total freedom apart from God; the very nature of that kind of freedom is what leads to sin, which is what leads to chaos, which is what leads to death! But the good news is that Jesus offers up a different freedom; freedom that’s in relationship to God; freedom that gives life rather than takes it away; freedom that makes us whole and complete.
When Jesus says to us, “you shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free,” he’s not saying that following him means casting every other responsibility aside in order to flow loosely through life like the wind moves over the ocean. Rather, and I want to quote Mark Roberts again here, “the freedom of Jesus is tethered to a foundational, bottom-line truth – the truth of the gospel, the truth of who God really is, the truth of who God created us to be.” In other words, to quote that famous book and record album from back in the ‘70’s, we are “free to be you and me,” understanding that in Christ, we are freed to be as God created you and me to be!
I know that for some this feels overly confining; in that regard, the church has always gotten the bad rap of always being spoilers of somebody’s good time. But take in mind, however, that for every free-fall “there’s always the rock-hard bottom that gladly collects the shattered parts of its victims.” It’s good for us to remember that this was precisely the kind of fate that Christ died to save us from, and that God never desired for us to be crushed and enveloped by the chaos of life and living. From the beginning of our creation, God’s desire has always been for us to live in loving relationship with him, and will go to the greatest of lengths to make sure we are safe; even to the point of giving up his own son to take that fall for us, and then raising him up so that we might know what life lived in true freedom really is! It’s because of the resurrection, beloved, that we live in freedom that carries us through life and beyond death to life eternal.
Back when we were living on the coast of Maine, as you can imagine, we spent a fair amount of time on the beach; and one thing we always loved to do was to take turns using the kids’ “boogie boards” to ride the tidal waves into shore (I used to think of it as my own middle-aged poor man’s version of surfing!). And it was great; very relaxing, paddling out into the surf to catch the wave, floating in on the board, and then going out to do it all over again. Before you knew it, you could spend the better part of an after just floating in and out; not at all a bad way to spend an afternoon, I’ll admit… except that I remember once eventually looking up to discover that in the process of all this floating in and out, I’ve drifted far, far away from where I started, and now I’m at least a quarter-mile from the part of the beach where I belonged!
I ask you, how often in life does that happen; when trying to “get somewhere” leads us far from where we really should be in the first place? Truly, so many of the choices we’re so sure will bring us the freedom we’re yearning for ultimately end up leading us astray. That’s why it’s good that we have a Savior who keeps us close and safe, that we might truly live, and love and thus serve him along the journey; for he is the who leads us in the way we should go; he’s the one who holds on to us when we start to drift; and he’s the one who loves we exactly where we are and as we are, but then sets out to make us free, so that we can be so much more.
It’s his gift to us, beloved; “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” May each one of us have the grace to accept the gift.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry