It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. It is this truth that is at the heart of everything we do and believe: for freedom, Christ has set us free. These words, or words like it, embrace key moments in our worship together. After our prayer of confession, we hear the freeing words of forgiveness…and so forgiven, we can turn and forgive one another, greeting each other with a sign of peace. Before we take up the offering, you will often hear me say, “Freely have we received; let us now freely give.” For freedom itself, Christ has set us free.
There is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. Don’t misunderstand: that’s not because God is such a perfectionist, or that God expects more of us than we can ever achieve. These ways of looking at it still have the formula backwards. God’s forgiveness comes before it all: before we lift a finger, before we say a word, before we are even aware that there is such a thing as “before”.
And the question isn’t even what we do with this freedom for which we have been freed. That’s still got the equation wrong; because rather than living in freedom, we have simply put earning God’s forgiveness in a place after God’s love rather than before it. And if we really and truly understand that we are free, then we can begin to see that there is no connection between how God loves and our ability to earn or prove that love.
Let me step back a moment, to our lesson this morning from Luke. In Luke’s gospel, this is the moment that follows immediately on the heels of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. He returns home to Galilee, going back to his home synagogue. While the details of Jesus’ childhood are scant, we do learn from this story that those who are at the synagogue that day are ones who know him well – at least, they think they do. Just think about any time that you’ve run into someone who knows you from “way back when” and assumes that you are exactly the same as you once were, that you have had zero life experience or growth between then and now…that’s how we can imagine Jesus’ return to Nazareth.
In other words, picture a bunch of people telling Jesus how they remember when he was “just this tall,” maybe even pinching his cheeks for good measure. It was probably enough to impress them that he was capable of reading and speaking in complete sentences, let alone able to offer them anything in the way of teaching.
The reading that Jesus shares is from the prophet Isaiah. It is one of the texts that become the backbone of the idea of the Jubilee, the “year of the Lord’s favor”, which was a unique season in time in theory, but not in practice. In it, every fifty years was to be set aside for God, and it was to be a national day of freedom. Debts were forgiven, prisoners were freed, land that had been lost was to be returned, all of it as a reminder of God’s provision for the people in time of need. I say “in theory” because apparently there is no record that the Jubilee ever happened. But it’s a lovely idea, isn’t it?
But the dramatic moment comes at the very end of our reading today, when Jesus has finished the reading and returned to his seat. This young man has just accomplished the miraculous equivalent in their eyes of walking and chewing gum at the same time. They are stunned, and watching him. It is then that he drops the bombshell: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Everyone there knew about the Jubilee and what it represented. And everyone knew that it was a great idea but completely impractical. By proclaiming that it was time for Jubilee, he might as well have said, “Now is the time when we shall sprout wings and take flight!”
But this is the moment that changes everything – for him, for them, and for us.
The reading from Isaiah acts as a sort of thesis statement for the rest of Luke. Jesus has been anointed – that’s the meaning of Messiah, Christ. And this anointing will lead him to spend most of his time with the poor, the sick, the disenfranchised, the marginal, preaching good news. He heals the blind and the sick and the deaf and the lame. He frees people who have been held captive in prisons of their own making. He is, single-handedly, making Jubilee happen!
For freedom, Christ has set us free.
We make ourselves crazy trying to prove just how worthy we are. We are busy – too busy for Sabbath and renewal – because we think that the world needs us that badly, or it will simply stop turning on its axis. We worry what others think of us and set about keeping up appearances so that they’ll think everything is A-OK. We live our lives as though everything depends on us. And when we are in that space, we are driven not by faith, but by fear.
And fear? Fear is powerful! It was fear that kept Jubilee relegated to the footnotes of history. What would happen if we really acted like we say we believed? What if we forgave debts and returned land and freed prisoners? Don’t be silly: it would be abject chaos!
Friends, we have nothing to prove! No matter how highly we might think of ourselves, or how unlovable we might feel, none of that matters to God. At all! We are loved because God is love; we are free, because Christ himself is freedom!
Can we trust that? Can we live that? Can we let go of the fears that imprison us?
The ground beneath us isn’t one that we construct; it is one that simply is, because God is. We might walk, we might stumble; we might even fall. But even that fall is limited, because the ground beneath us is certain. And that’s the certainty that can point the way to freedom.
When we know that we are free, then we are free to try. And we are just as free to fail as we are to succeed.