Do you know what it means to be FREE?
Freedom is a slightly weird concept to us. Most of us aren’t aware of any need to be ‘freed’. We don’t feel ‘imprisoned’ – or trapped – in any way. We live our lives – perhaps limited sometimes by the constraints of work or our responsibilities – but not with any regular awareness of our need to be freed.
This Easter weekend we’ve just celebrated an amazing, earth shattering act, which was all about freedom. Jesus said so himself – in probably his first ‘preach’, he stood up in the synagogue in Nazareth and read from Isaiah 61:
‘The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners.’ (Isaiah 61:1, NIV)
Then he preached. He was pretty to the point: he just said ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ (Luke 4:21, NIV). Jesus was announcing to the world that day that he had come to set in motion a chain of events that would eventually set them all FREE.
The thing is, the people listening on that day didn’t really get what he was talking about. They didn’t get why Jesus had come to set them free. Neither did thousands of other people he spoke to after that day. It wasn’t that they didn’t feel imprisoned – in fact the Jews in particular did – ruled as they were by the Romans. Living as the underdogs in a land that was supposed to be their own, they were waiting for someone to come and free them – a great military leader who would lead a revolution to win back their land. But that wasn’t what Jesus came to free them from.
So they were as confused as we are when he said these words. And things didn’t get any clearer for them, because Jesus didn’t hang out where they expected him to. He didn’t spend all his time in the temple, or with the influential people – the politicians or the great spiritual leaders of the time. Instead he did strange things – spoke with people who those in authority would not usually have talked to (women, for example), had dinner with tax collectors, spent time with sinners. The people he chose to join his team and work with him were not esteemed, well thought of, religious people; they were dodgy sorts, the kinds of people you weren’t really supposed to associate with.
More than once (see Matthew 9:13 and Matthew 12:7), Jesus tried to explain what he had come to do by quoting words originally from Hosea 6:6:
‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’
What on earth does this mean? Jesus was referring to the regime under which the Jewish people currently lived. After Moses came down from his encounter with God on Mount Sinai, he shared ten commandments with them. But more than that those 10 commandments, there were a LOT of laws. Leviticus sets out over 600 in fact. These were the rules the people had to live by in order that they – imperfect, messed up people just like us, could live alongside a God as awesome and perfect as God is.
A lot of these rules required them to make sacrifices to God in order to keep themselves right with Him. A sacrifice is when we give up something precious to us to show our commitment and love to someone or something else. So they had to sacrifice continually to demonstrate their faith to God. They were on constant catch up. And the rules they were trying to follow were a Big Deal. People had died just for getting a rule wrong – they Mattered. And yet, they still kept on messing up. Sin, and evil, and temptation, and other good old reliable human traits like just plain old forgetting, or not thinking things really mattered any more, or ‘couldn’t-really-be-bothered-itis’ – there were loads of reasons why they couldn’t keep all those rules. But most of all, they just couldn’t keep up with them all.
Into all this came spiritual leaders who had tried to do their bit to make things better. But many had just added more rules, more red tape and hoops that the people had to jump through – red tape they had to work through in order to get things right. The people ended up tied up by these rules – things that were supposed to make things better but somehow made things worse. And all their failures – their sin – just built up between them and God.
This was what Jesus meant when he talked about desiring ‘mercy, not sacrifice’. I love the way The Message translates it in Matthew 9 as ‘mercy, not religion’. Religion is what you get when you take the heart out of a message from God. Without the heart and the love and the passion you’re just left with a load of rules that people can’t keep up with. Doomed to keep on failing, its hard not to get despondent when you’re living a life of religion – a life where you simply aren’t good enough and you keep getting reminded of it.
But Jesus came to free them from all that.
How? When we sacrifice something for God, he brings us blessings – unexpected gifts in other areas of our life. In Jesus case he made the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his life. And in this case the gift as a result of his sacrifice didn’t go to him – it came to all of us. Because Jesus gave his life in order to bring something much bigger and better than rules or religion – mercy. In sending Jesus to the earth God acknowledged that we couldn’t make it – we just weren’t up to it. But you know what – he said we were worth it anyway. Worth what? Worth everything to the God who loves us. So he sent his son to die for us – the final, ultimate sacrifice so that we don’t need to make any more. One massive step to free us from all those rules and make sure that even if we never get anything right again, we won’t ever be cut off from God. Jesus died, and bridged the gap between us and God once and for all.
But what does this freedom mean to us today? We’re not captured in the same way that those people were by religious rules and regulations we try to live by. In fact we often don’t realise that we are captive at all. It makes me think about one of those classic images of Easter – rabbits. You see, a friend of mine lost her rabbit not so long ago. The cage accidentally got left open and you know what – as soon as that rabbit realised he wasn’t captive any more, he RAN! But the things that can keep us captive are more subtle, more clever than that very obvious cage he had lived in.
The rules we live by are often in our heads, not written down. Subtle things, unspoken things, but oh they feel important. If we build our life on something, risking not sticking to it can leave us feeling like it might all fall apart. Some of our rules to live by are good – try to stay alive, be good to people, think of others before ourselves. They have good roots, and the results they produce are positive. But others come from a darker place. They are the whispers of our culture, the dictates of our 21st century society, echoes of a life built on something other than God – of trying to get the things we so desperately need from the wrong place. We run away from religion and find … a cultural religion that stil tells us how we have to live. So, we slog to earn as much money as we can, struggle look as good as we can, sweat to fight the years and maintain our youth. We burn the candle at all its ends as we try to always be the best, always get everything right, always succeed. We develop an insatiable appetite for stories of other people and we see them getting things wrong and get an inner warmth from the knowledge that we are not making their mistakes. But at the same time we see people apparently getting much more right than us – and we compare ourselves to them and find we come off poorly in comparison.
Perhaps the most striking thing about our captivity is that we often don’t realise we are not free. We choose to live our lives by these rules and sign up to their religion – and yet they limit us – and the fruit they produce is not good. Read any newspaper and you will hear news of soaring rates of anxiety, stress, depression, worries and both physical and mental illness. We follow these rules to chase an illusive calm, but all the produce is yet more things buzzing through our exhausted brains. Trying to carry on regardless of these things, we take on other things that can start to force us into other rules – addictions, unhealthy strategies to cope: things we try to base our lives upon because maybe if we can keep this up it will all be ok.
In Matthew 11, Jesus sets out what he is about to offer through his own ultimate sacrifice:
‘Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life’ (Matthew 11:28 The Message)
What Jesus offers is a get out from this life on the cultural treadmill – freedom to live apart from these rules and to meet your very real needs with something much greater. An editorial in the Guardian put it this way ‘What Christianity brought into the world wasn’t compassion, kindness, decency, hard work, or any of the other respectable virtues, real and necessary though they are. It was the extraordinary idea that people have worth in themselves, regardless of their usefulness to others, regardless even of their moral qualities. That is what is meant by the Christian talk of being saved by grace rather than works, and by the Christian assertion that God loves everyone, the malformed, the poor, the disabled and even the foreigner.’
Jesus came – and died – to offer us the ultimate freedom – to experience life the way we were designed. Because we weren’t meant to meet these needs by our own hard work. We were designed to live in harmony with God, as his people, having our needs met by Him. We can walk away from our captivity. But freedom is not forced upon us – we have to make the choice to accept it. Like the rabbit we have to choose to run – to leave our cages, make the decision to let go the demands our society and our culture dictates, walk away from those things and instead choose a better way of living. We leave behind all we know and run to something different.
Psalm 37:39-40 puts it like this:
‘The spacious, free life is from God,it’s also protected and safe. God-strengthened, we’re delivered from evil—when we run to him, he saves us.’ (The Message)
This isn’t a one off decision – it is an everyday choice, of what we want to follow and base our lives upon. But only one route leads to real freedom.
Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we’ve been given a brand-new life and have everything to live for, including a future in heaven—and the future starts now! (1 Peter 1:3 The Message)
Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice to offer us the ultimate opportunity. What we do next is up to us.