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Monday, September 26 2016
Well here we are! It’s week 3 in our sermon series about the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve heard from Pastor Randy the last two weeks about “Our Father, who art in Heaven” and “Hallowed be thy name.” Today we are talking about “Thy kingdom come.”
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, this line comes and goes really quickly. It’s only three words-- don’t blink because you’ll miss it as you go to the next part of the prayer, “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It’s easy to miss. But those three words—“thy kingdom come” are REALLY important to the Lord’s Prayer.
So first of all, what is God’s kingdom? We don’t have kings or queens in America, so it’s kind of strange for us to think of a kingdom. Basically, it means God’s rule and reign (reigning over, not rain!). I came across a really great definition of God’s kingdom by the late Dr. Anthony Hoekema-- he said that God’s kingdom is “the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of his people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.”
I’m going to say that again, because there is a lot going on there. God’s kingdom is “the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of his people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth.”
Although this definition is a bit high-falutant and smacks of academia, I love this definition. It shows us how God’s kingdom is present in the past, present AND future. Here is a bit of a simpler translation that I came up with: God has done and is doing doing amazing things through Jesus Christ, to save us and redeem us, and will ultimately establish a final kingdom here on earth when Jesus comes again.
A big way people talk about God’s kingdom is this phrase—“already but not yet.” The first part—the already-- means that God’s kingdom came here to us through Jesus when he walked the earth and taught and healed and cast out demons, and when he died on the cross for us, and rose again-- and continues to be present with us. So God’s kingdom is already here.
But I don’t have to tell you that our world is not perfect. There is evil, and sin, and illness, and death. So God’s kingdom isn’t FULLY here, not yet. That won’t happen until Jesus comes again, and the new heaven and the new earth come to us.
So God’s kingdom is here already, but not yet.
So how is God’s kingdom already here? In our first reading for today in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time, when the kingdom of God was coming. And Jesus says to them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed… For in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
So we hear about a future of the kingdom—we hear that the kingdom of God WILL BE coming, but we won’t know when or observe when—but we also hear from Jesus that the kingdom of God is here, now, in the midst of us, among us, within us.
We can see glimpses of God’s kingdom in our lives and in our world today. That’s how God’s kingdom is here already.
When a person comforts another person who is dealing with grief, that’s God’s kingdom breaking into our lives.
When countries around the world welcome men, women, and children, who are displaced because of war and have nowhere else to go, that’s God’s kingdom.
When someone hears about Jesus’ love for them for the first time, that’s God’s kingdom.
When someone realizes that they are of ultimate worth no matter what the world tells them, that’s God’s kingdom.
When people who are different than us are welcomed with open arms, that’s God’s kingdom.
When someone prays with a friend who needs to feel God’s presence, that’s God’s kingdom.
When someone who is beyond hope is told that they are loved by the One who created them, that’s God’s kingdom.
When people in developing countries, who have almost no material possessions, still praise God loud and clear and know that God loves them and cares for them, that’s God’s kingdom.
When you have a moment—in could be in church, when you’re alone at home, with family and friends, in the supermarket, wherever—and you know without a doubt in that moment that God is so very close to you—that’s God’s kingdom.
I could go on, but we will be here past [lunch and] dinner and maybe even dessert!
Although we live in a broken world, God’s kingdom is breaking into our world all the time in small, big, and medium-sized ways. That’s how God’s kingdom is already here.
A friend of mine had God’s kingdom break into his life in an amazing way. He suffered from what they call a frozen shoulder. He had very limited mobility in his right shoulder, and any sudden movement meant excruciating pain. His whole life was impacted, because he had to plan ahead and think through anything his right arm might do and plan accordingly—or deal with the pain. He had to figure out different ways to do everyday tasks that you and I don’t think twice about.
He eventually went through 3 months of physical therapy. He regained a bit more mobility, but not much. When they discharged him from therapy, he still wasn’t able to lift his arm more than 20% above shoulder level. He tried to get used to it as the new normal.
Until one day, during the Alpha Course (that’s the class on the Christian faith that we also run here at Zion in the spring), they were doing a class on healing and how God can heal. There is a time at the end of the class when people can get prayed for, for specific things.
So he asked for prayer during this time, and all he said was that he wanted prayer for aches and pains. The group laid hands on him—some people instinctively put their hands on his right shoulder, even though he hadn’t told them—and they prayed for him.
And nothing happened.
…Until the next morning. When he woke up, he had full mobility of his right shoulder, and absolutely no pain. And 10 years later, his shoulder is still completely healed. He continuously praises God for healing him. That was God’s kingdom breaking into his life, hands down.
So when we pray for God’s kingdom to come, that’s actually a pretty dangerous thing to pray. Because God’s kingdom is powerful. God has the power to heal, to do amazing and miraculous things. And sometimes we don’t feel ready to experience God’s power—and we can actually be afraid of what God can do. Praying for God’s kingdom to come means that we are praying for God to break into our world and DO SOMETHING AMAZING.
Now we know that sometimes God heals, and sometimes healing doesn’t come. And that’s the “not yet” part of God’s kingdom. God does some amazing things right now, big and small, so God’s kingdom is here already—but not everything is complete and perfect, so God’s kingdom is still not here yet. We live in this tension, this in-between, of experiencing God’s kingdom in glimpses and moments right now, but still waiting for God’s kingdom to come fully in the future.
So what is God’s kingdom going to be like in the future? I’m so glad you asked!
We heard just a few minutes ago in the Book of Revelation about God’s kingdom coming to us when Jesus comes again. I’m going to read a part of it again—listen for how God’s future kingdom is described: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
So when Jesus comes again, God will fully establish God’s kingdom here on earth. Everything will be as it should be. God will be with us in an even more immediate way, always and obviously with us, and there will be no more crying, no more death, no more pain, no more suffering. We will be living in this perfect, complete world, for all eternity.
That is what we have to look forward to as believers in Jesus Christ—when Jesus comes again, all of the crud that life throws at us won’t exist anymore. God’s kingdom will be here.
Do you see why praying “thy kingdom come” is so dangerous? When we pray that, we are not only asking God’s kingdom to break into our world right now—we are also praying that Jesus returns to us a second time and establishes God’s kingdom once and for all.
That means that our world as it exists right now will cease to exist. And although we know that what’s coming will be beyond our wildest dreams, that God’s perfect kingdom will be, well, perfect-- we fear the unknown of what it will be like to have the only world we’ve ever known disappear. We don’t know how this all will happen, or when.
But we do know WHY. We know that God loves us beyond anything we can imagine, so much so that God’s own son Jesus Christ died for us so that we could enjoy being in God’s kingdom forever. We know that God’s kingdom breaks into our world now, in glimpses—but those are just a taste of what awaits us at the Great Banquet, when God’s kingdom comes for good. We know that God’s kingdom is already here among us—but at some point we will spend all eternity basking in God’s light and love when the kingdom comes completely.
So knowing all these things—and experiencing God’s love through Jesus Christ both now and in the future we pray, “THY KINGDOM COME.” Amen?
Monday, September 19 2016
John 17:1-11; Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 29:1-11; Philippians 2:5-11
Last week we learned that the name of God – the name that God gives to us to use when praying to God – is Father. Jesus went so far as to call God the Father – “Abba.”
On one of my trips to Israel back in the late 90’s, I got up early to take a walk, and there in front of the hotel where we were staying was a street vendor selling his wares. With him was a little boy. And I just happened to be there when I heard this little boy come running up to the man crying, “Abba, Abba.”
And I said to myself, “I know what that word means.” The little boy was calling the man, “Daddy.”
Again, as we learned last week, Jesus has given us the name by which we are to address God, and that name is, “Father.” Or – we can use the term of closeness and intimacy that Jesus uses by calling God, “Abba.” SO when we use either of these two names, “Father,” or “Abba,” we are asking God to be intimate with us. To enter into every area – every arena – every moment of our lives.
And as I said last week, that’s just one reason why praying the Lord’s Prayer can be a dangerous prayer. That kind of intimacy with our loving, Heavenly Father is something that some of us just might not be used to. We want to be close, but not too close.
But still, we pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be thy name.”
I like the story about the pastor who was going from Sunday School class to Sunday School class one morning to meet with the kids. In the first-grade class, he asked the kids what it was that they had been learning. One little boy said God created the whole world and everything in it. A little girl said that God loves us very much. Another little girl said that God had a son named Jesus who came to earth to save us from our sins. The pastor was quite pleased with all the responses until finally one little boy piped up, “I know what God's name is...it's Howard, same as mine. “The pastor was puzzled, and said, “Why do you think God’s name is Howard?” And the little boy said, “Sure! We say it all the time. "Our Father, who art in heaven, Howard be Thy name..."
Okay, so you’ve heard that one before. The Forrest Gump version of this joke has Forrest saying that God’s name is Andy. You know – from the old Gospel hymn? “Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me, Andy tells me I am his own.” Okay – so you’ve heard that one too.
AND – I don’t think it’s irreverent – at least not TOO irreverent – to tell jokes like that. On the other hand – when we pray the Lord’s Prayer – we are making a declaration that God’s name is to be hallowed. And that’s no joke!
By the way – that word hallowed – it’s an old English word – and since it is an old English word – who can tell me what hallowed means? And just so that we’re sure – this is not a greeting to your friend Ed. You know – “Hello Ed!” Sorry. So use your outdoor voices; my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Anybody? What does the word “Hallowed” mean?
Ok, holy. And holy can be defined in a bunch of ways. Anybody want to take a stab at it? What does the word “holy” mean? Pure. Without sin. Special. The definition I like best is “Set apart”. Set apart. Something – like for instance – the name of God – that is completely set apart from all other things – or in this case – all other names.
So when we pray this prayer, what we are saying – actually what we are doing – is making a declaration – that God’s name is holy – and that it is our intention to keep it – to use it – in holy ways – in ways that befit God’s character.
Now having said that, I wonder – I just wonder how good a job we do at doing that. For instance, one of the Ten Commandments says “Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Well, what does that mean?
Simply put, not only are we to use God’s name in holy ways, BUT we are not to use it in unholy ways – in unholy ways that take God’s name in vain. In other words, for no good purpose.
Do you know the best illustration of this? “O, my God,” do you know the best illustration of this? Thankfully – we now have a substitute for “O, my God,” so if you don’t want to actually say “O, my God,” – you can always get away with “OMG!” All caps. I see that a lot on Face Book. You know – if you want to keep God’s name holy – just use OMG, right? Uhmmm. No. I would say not. Your choice, but…think about whether or not OMG keeps God’s name holy or not.
Oh, and by the way – God’s last name – is not – darnit. Actually – I substituted darnit for that other word – but since this is a family service – I know that you know what word I’m talking about. Are we clear with that?
And it is not my intention in any way, shape, or form to turn this into a guilt session. I’m not beating up on anybody. Are we clear on that?
You see, I am of the belief that we really do want to keep God’s name holy. I really do believe that it is not our desire to use God’s name in any unholy way.
God's name is holy. And what we are praying for when we pray the Lord’s Prayer is that WE might make it holy in our lives by our words and deeds. It is not always easy. Hey! I told you this is a dangerous prayer to pray!
So the name of God – the name that we can use to pray to God – is “Abba. Father.” And what we are asking is that God would help us to keep His name holy.
Now – when Jesus addressed God as, “Abba,” or “Father,” it shocked the people who listened to him. To address God in such a personal and intimate way went against everything they knew about God. It is this intimacy that Jesus has with God that totally shocks the listeners of his day. Until Jesus came along – no good Jew would dare use the intimate name of Abba to address God. Nobody. When Jesus prayed with such deep intimacy that He is able to call God, “Abba,” the disciples are stunned! Even more stunning is that Jesus gives them permission – in fact – he expects them to pray this way too.
You see, the divine name – the holy name – by which the disciples and the people of Jesus’ day knew God is the name that was given to their Old Testament hero, Moses. And the name that was given to Moses was so holy – that practicing Jews even today will not say that name. They will instead substitute the name Adonai – which means Lord – in its place.
The reading from the book of Exodus that we heard a few moments ago tells the story of God calling Moses to go to Egypt to lead the people of Israel out of slavery into the freedom of the Promised Land. Moses balks. He does not feel worthy. Quite frankly, he just doesn’t want to do it. So after offering every excuse in the book as to why God should send someone else, he caves, and says, “Well, alright then. But when the people ask me, ‘Who sent you?' whom shall I say sent me? What is your name?”
And God answers, “You tell them that “I am who I am” or simply “I am” has sent you. This “I am” name is used by Jesus in John’s Gospel as a reference to himself, thus Jesus lets us know that he himself is God.
The name – the holy name that God gives to Moses – the name Jewish people even today will not say – in the Hebrew language is a name made up of the four consonants, “YHWH.” There are no vowels in this name. The closest we think it was pronounced is “Yahweh or Yahveh.” Some pronounce it Jehovah. But quite frankly – Jehovah is not the name of God at all. Jehovah is a poor substitute for God’s name. Someone a few centuries ago took the vowels out of “Elohim,” – another Jewish name for God – inserted the vowels in between the Y and H and W and H – and came up with Jehovah. By the way, I threw that little tidbit in for free. So – you can scratch that. Jehovah is not a name for God.
The point of this is not to fill time in this sermon, but to let you know that God's name is so holy that the ancient Jews did not pronounce it at all. When we read the Psalm earlier, you may have noticed that the word LORD appeared in all caps. In some English translations when you see LORD in all caps, that tells you that in the Hebrew that’s where the name YHWH appears. So even some of our English language Bibles will substitute LORD for YHWH.
The good news for us is that we can call God by this new name – using the name that God has given to us. Abba. Father. And just as JHWH was the name for God under the Old covenant – Father is the name given to us under the New Covenant – the new covenant made with us by God through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now – even though the New Covenant names, “Abba, Father,” are names of deep intimacy – this does not change the fact that God is still God – and we are still human. Be careful not to think that this intimacy with God means we can control God when we pray – as though God were some cosmic Santa Claus – there to give us everything we want. That’s not who God is. Even so – by addressing God as Father – by calling Him Abba – we can approach God with the same intimacy that Jesus did.
Folks – the name that God has revealed to us is, “Father.” Or “Abba.” That makes all the difference when we pray. Again, as I said last week – no earthly father can possibly be a model for the father image we have in God the Father. Especially if your father was – well – not very good at being a dad.
And if you like, you can still call God, “God.” But just remember that God’s name is not Howard, or Andy. And please – please do not refer to God as “the man upstairs.” Really can’t stand that. The thing is is that when we approach God – when we pray to “Abba, Father,” as Jesus teaches us to do – we do not need to do so in fear. Respect yes – keeping God’s name holy, yes – but we do not need to be afraid to come to God, our Heavenly Father, in prayer.
So there you have it. “Our Father, who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy name...” We keep God’s name holy when we treat God and God’s name – when we treat Jesus and the Holy Spirit – with respect and honor. When we – well – when we remember to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. Because it’s not just in showing respect to God that we keep God’s name holy – but we show we really mean it by how we treat others.
Yes, this is a dangerous prayer to pray. But still we pray that somehow, someway, with God’s help – we will have the desire to keep God’s name holy in all the ways that we are able – in order to bring the praise and honor and glory that are due His name.
Monday, September 12 2016
Matthew 6: 5-13
Children often have a wonderful attitude when it comes to God and church. Sometimes this is reflected in the prayers that they pray. Let me share a few actual prayers that are from a collection of these prayers entitled “Dear God”
Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother but what I asked for was a puppy. I never asked for anything before. You can look it up.
Dear God, I read the bible. What does begat mean? Nobody will tell me.
Dear God, My Grandpa says you were around when he was a little boy. How far back do you go?
Dear God, Please send Dennis Clark to a different summer camp this year. Dear God, I am doing the best I can. Really.
Dear God, I didn't think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday night. That was really cool.
Ah, if only it were that simple! Well, today we begin an eight-week series on the Lord’s Prayer. I have no idea where this series is going to take us. On the surface of it, it seems like prayer should be an easy thing. Just open up your heart to God, and let the words come out.
But you know it isn’t quite that easy – especially if you’ve ever been asked to pray in public – at a Bible study, at a holiday family meal, or whatever.
So let me ask you a question. Have you – at any time in your life – have you ever said to yourself, “I don’t know how to pray. I wish I knew how.” Have you ever asked someone else – a teacher or a pastor – to teach you how to pray? Have you ever been too embarrassed to ask the question? Well, let me tell you, you’re not alone.
Often the challenge is that prayer takes time. But there’s always something else to do. “I’ll get down to praying when I have the time.” Gotta read the newspaper, get the oil changed, walk the dog. Gotta binge watch old episodes of “Friends” on Netflix.
Listen! The best way to learn how to pray is to – pray, right? I can’t learn how to shoot hoops until I make time to shoot hoops and practice that. I learned how to play the organ by making time to practice and to play the organ. So finding time to pray is not a good way to begin. Making time – not finding time – making time – and then doing it – that’s how you and I learn how to pray. Morning – evening – middle of the day – on the fly – I don’t care – doesn’t matter. You do what works for you. Make a time at a time that works for you, and then stick with it. Martin Luther advised that it be the first thing you do in the morning, and the last thing you do at the end of the day. That’s what worked for him. That doesn’t work for me, cause I gotta tell ya – praying is not the first thing on my mind when I get out of bed in the morning.
So making time – no matter what your schedule looks like – is a key to learning how to pray. Just do what works for you. And know this. If you are struggling with knowing how to pray, remember that you’re not alone in that struggle. Even the disciples of Jesus struggled, asking that now famous question, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
By the way, this is an amazing request. They did not ask Jesus for wealth or popularity. They did not ask Jesus to teach them how to run a business meeting – or how to run Vacation Bible School. No. What they wanted to learn more than anything else was how to pray.
Jesus taught the disciples how to pray by giving them an example. We know it as the Lord’s Prayer. Although I would never change the name of this prayer, it would be better if we called it The Disciples’ Prayer. It is a prayer that we as disciples pray. And when you take a close look at it, what it really is is a model of what prayer can look like.
Now, I suspect that most of us memorized the Lord’s Prayer before we could even read. And sometimes I lament the fact that we all have it memorized – and I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t have memorized it. Praying a prayer together that we have memorized – like the Lord’s Prayer – is a wonderful thing. The problem is that too often they are just words. It’s easy to engage the head, but not the heart. Do you understand what I mean?
So – this can be a prayer we pray together – but it can also be a model for what prayer might look like. And having said all that, have you ever realized just how dangerous a prayer the Lord’s Prayer can really be? We are calling this series, “The Dangerous Prayer.” As we go through this series today and over the next seven weeks we’re going to pick it apart. And I hope you’ll understand just why we are calling this a dangerous prayer. Think about it. “Do you really want God’s Kingdom to come to you? Do you really want to pray, ‘Your will be done?’” So today we begin with, “Our Father who art in heaven.”
In prayer, the first thing we do is address who it is we are praying to. Our Father. Jesus called the Father, “Abba.” Abba is not a rock group from the ‘80’s, but it is a Hebrew word. The closest we can come to translating that word into English is “Dad,” or “Daddy.” What Abba is is a word that expresses a deep and intimate relationship. God wants to be in relationship with you. Deep. Personal. Intimate. God wants to be up close and personal with you. This is a prayer of deep intimacy. By addressing God as Father – which, by the way, is the name that we are given to address God with – and I’ll say more about that next week when the focus will be on, “Hallowed be thy name,” but for today let me say that when we pray, “Our Father,” we are asking God to be intimate with us – and for us to be intimate with Him. To enter into every area – every arena – every moment of our lives. If that kind of intimacy with your loving, Heavenly Father is something you’re not used to, then right off the bat – can you see why this can be a dangerous prayer to pray? I know. Some of us would rather hold God at arm’s length. You know – close, but not too close. Am I right?
And yet, Jesus calls God Father or Abba. And tells us that it is okay for us to call God Father or Abba too! These are terms of endearment – closeness – intimacy. And yet, I know that some people – probably more than we might think – have a hard time thinking of God as a loving Father. And the reason why is that some of us have no idea what a loving father might be like. Either their father was absent – even when he was there. Maybe their father abandoned them at an early age. Worse, perhaps their father was cruel or abusive – and they grew up not liking – or maybe even hating their earthly father. When it comes to being a father, some men can be real schmucks, you know that? (Too many of you are shaking your heads.) Some fathers have no idea what it means to be a dad.
Yeah! I get it. If your earthly father was a lousy role model – you’re going to have a hard time accepting the idea of God as Father. I get that. But let me tell you this. There is no such thing as a perfect father here on earth. Now I know of one exception to that. I am not afraid to say that I was the perfect father. I was the perfect father – and then I had children. No – on this side of heaven there is no earthly father who comes close to the loving, heavenly, Father God that we have – the Father God that we pray to when we pray the Lord’s prayer.
So it is good to start the Lord’s Prayer this way – addressing God as “Our Father.” This is not some generic god we are praying to – a generic god who has no name and who is offensive to no one, and acceptable to everyone. I gotta tell you –I don’t know that god. Our God has a name – and Jesus tells us that we can call God, “Abba, Father.”
But the wonderful thing about this prayer is that we are invited into this loving – wonderful relationship with God the Father – made possible through the life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ – and through the person, and the power, and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
So if we understand – and when we experience – this intimate relationship that we have with the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit – if you truly mean it when you acknowledge God as Father – do you understand what that says about you? It says something about who you are.
So when it comes to prayer – do you know who you are? One of the most important chapters in the Bible is in Romans 8. Listen again to what Paul says here. “For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God…, you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
Did you catch that? I say this all the time. Ladies – girls – you are daughters. And gentlemen – boys – you are sons. You are daughters and sons – you are adopted daughters and sons of the Father. And it is in the waters of baptism that we receive that adoption. Here it is that we are named. Here it is that we are claimed. We are made sons and daughters of God. You now belong to God!
I know, it’s kind of a mystery, but this is what God – this is what the Father – says He does for us. The Father adopts us into His family. We are adopted into God’s loving family. That of course makes all of us brothers and sisters in Christ.
Folks – I want you to know that you are no accident – the product of a universe that came into being by pure chance. No. You are a daughter – you are a son – of the living, loving Father God who has been watching over you from the day you were born.
So if you want to learn how to pray – here is a place to start. Know who you are – and who it is that you’re praying to. And the next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer – like – in just a couple minutes from now – and you’re really wanting to recognize God as your loving, heavenly Father – then let this prayer remind you of it. There will never come a time when God the Father will ever stop loving you. No matter what you’ve done – no matter where you’ve been – and if you’re prone to wander – no matter how long you’ve been away. God will never stop loving you.
May this prayer – this dangerous prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer – let it remind you of who you are – and to whom you belong. Amen
Wednesday, September 07 2016
A man met up with a close friend in a bar. They were catching up over some beers, and the man asked his friend, “Hey, what happened to your brother? I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Oh, that,” the friend replied. “Well, he posted some things about his ex-wife online and so he had to lay low for a while.”
“Geez” the man said, “Whatever happened to freedom of speech?”
“Seriously,” the friend said. “Although, to be fair, it was probably a mistake telling everyone where he hid her body.”
I guess freedom of speech doesn’t apply to details about ex-wife disappearances!
This summer, we’ve celebrated some of the freedoms we have as Americans—on Memorial Day, 4th of July, and even this weekend at our HUGE Labor Day Fair and our parade here in Clarence Center. We eat hot dogs, watch fireworks, maybe even listen to patriotic songs to remind us that we live in America, land of the free (and home of the brave).
With all this talk about being free, it’s crazy to think about how only 150 years ago or so, we still had slaves in this country. People who were definitely NOT free, who were considered property of their owners, and many times treated terribly.
Slavery isn’t something we talk about much today, at least in this country. But in the time of the first century Jesus followers, slavery was a huge part of life. 35 to 40% of the whole population were slaves. These slaves were property of their masters, and could be bought or sold whenever the owner felt like it. Slaves were typically abused and if they were no longer able to work due to sickness or old age, they were thrown out on the street with no way of supporting themselves.
This is all really disturbing—but what’s even more disturbing about slaves in the first century is that, if a slave ran away, the owner had the right to kill the slave. No questions asked.
Enter our second reading today. Paul writes a letter to a slave owner named Philemon. It’s not very long—in fact, Philemon is one of the shortest books of the Bible, only 25 verses long. But even though it’s a short letter, it packs a punch.
Paul asks Philemon to free his slave Onesimus. Why? Because Onesimus has been a great help to Paul in spreading the Gospel, and had become like a son to him.
But even more than that, Onesimus is a runaway slave. Paul knows that he would be killed by his owner Philemon. So Paul send Onesimus back to Philemon, with this letter, in the hopes that Philemon will not only spare Onesimus’ life, but will also free him so that he can continue to serve God with Paul.
Paul writes in verses 15-17: “Perhaps this is the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in flesh and in the Lord. So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”
It’s a risky move, for sure. What if Philemon sees Onesimus and kills him right away, without reading the letter first? Or what if he reads the letter, is not convinced, and kills him anyway?
Clearly, Paul is confident in his knowledge of Philemon, knowing that he would at least read the letter and consider Paul’s words. And Paul is also confident in his writing, knowing that he can be very persuasive. And thirdly, Paul is confident that Philemon sees him as a brother in Christ, and will also come to realize Onesimus is his brother in Christ as well. And Paul wants Philemon to realize-- when someone is your brother or sister in Christ, it is wrong to enslave them or kill them. Those who follow Christ are made to be free. It’s not right to kill or enslave anyone, of course, but how much more is that true for a brother or sister in Christ!
We don’t have slavery in the same way as Paul writes about here in America today, but you can bet we are slaves. We live in different forms of slavery. We are slaves to media and the internet, slaves to our phones, slaves to lying, slaves to keeping up the status quo so that those less fortunate than us continue to struggle. We are slaves to alcohol, drugs, unhelpful habits. We are slaves to hurtful actions against others, hurtful thoughts against others. We are slaves to hurtful thoughts and actions against ourselves.
So you see, we are slaves. We are in spiritual slavery, you could say. And we can’t get free on our own. In the order of worship in our green book, the Lutheran Book of Worship, it says during the confession and forgiveness that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves.” Only Jesus can free us.
Contemporary Christian singer and songwriter Matthew West asked people to send them their personal stories to him, and he would pick some of the true stories and write songs about them.
So he received over 20,000 stories from people all over the world! And one of those stories really struck him.
Renee Napier’s life was changed forever. Her 20-year-old daughter was coming home from the beach when another young adult, Eric Smallridge, drove while drunk and smashed into her car. Both Renee’s daughter and her daughter’s friend were killed. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Renee was the one who wrote to Matthew West about her story.
At the Kingdom Bound Christian music festival held at Darien Lake just down the road from here a few years ago, my husband Will and I not only heard the song Matthew wrote about Renee and her daughter and Eric—we also heard Renee herself and Eric himself tell their stories on stage.
You see, the story didn’t end with Eric being sentenced and sent to prison. Renee told us how her anger and bitterness and hatred toward Eric for killing her daughter was ruining her. Eric was the one in prison, but she felt like the prisoner, jailed in her own hatred and not able to get out.
Finally, Renee realized that she couldn’t live her life like this anymore. So she prayed to God and asked God to help her heal and forgive Eric. And God led her little by little until she was able to forgive him. She told us how she would have never been able to do it herself, she was too angry— Jesus was the one who got her to that point.
And then we heard Eric’s story, of how one night’s huge mistake not only landed him in jail, but cost the lives of two innocent young women. He talked about his time in jail, how he felt like he couldn’t live with the guilt of what he had done. Eventually, he talked with the Christian chaplain at the jail, and the pastor gave Eric a Bible and talked with him about Jesus. Through reading Scripture and talking with the chaplain, Eric started to realize that Jesus wanted to help him let go of that guilt, wanted to take that burden from him so he could live his life for Jesus. And little by little, Eric’s guilt became less and less and he became a changed man.
Jesus freed both Renee and Eric from those things they were enslaved to. Renee’s anger and hatred, and Eric’s guilt, could have easily destroyed them. But Jesus worked in their lives to free them from those things that were hurting them and keeping them from living their lives for him. Renee was able to forgive Eric, and Eric was able to forgive himself. They were made free.
Jesus does that for us. Jesus does that for YOU. Jesus died on that cross to take away those things that we are slaves to—so that we could be free. It doesn’t matter what it is that you are a slave to—when Jesus died, he died so that you could be free from those things that chain you down and keep you from living your life fully for him.
And here’s the cool thing about all this-- Jesus continues to free us from those things that enslave us, that hold us down, that imprison us. I want you to close your eyes. I want you to picture one thing that you feel like you are a slave to in life. It could be a grudge you’re holding on to. It could be guilt from something you did in the past. It could be a hurtful habit. Whatever it is, I want you to picture it.
Now I want you to take a minute or two and give that thing over to Jesus. Pray to Jesus, ask him to take it from you, to free you from that thing that’s enslaving you. You may do that silently or out loud. [Pause for prayers]
Lord Jesus, we ask that you free us from those things that we give to you today. They have held us back for so long. Help us to be slaves to them no more, in your name. Give us your amazing freedom, so that we may be free to live for you. In your holy name we pray, amen.