What is Freedom?
This past week we celebrate our national independence. The Fourth
of July is the day we revel in and give thanks to God for our
freedoms. We enjoy the freedom of speech. We are free to express our
views on life without the fear of government reprisals. We enjoy the
freedom of the press. We can publish our unique perspective and
distribute our ideas to whoever will read them. We have the freedom
to worship. The government is not allowed to dictate what we believe
or how we express those religious beliefs. We are free to travel to
any part of the US or foreign country. We are free to do nearly
anything we want but are we truly free.
“My goal is financial independence,” Ted said to his pastor as
they walked down the fairway toward the 7th green. The
pastor was not surprised. Ted projected the image of a driven man. He
had built a small business into a great corporation now worth
millions by “the sweat of his brow,” as he likes to put it. His
whole life was geared to gaining financial independence. And with a
couple of million dollars to his name, he had nearly accomplished his
goal. I wonder how free is Ted. I wonder if Ted’s quest for
financial freedom has required him to become a slave.i
Some of us would like to think that freedom is being able to do
whatever we want to do. We are free only if we are liberated from the
constraints of social expectations, political laws, traditions, and
customs. Eric Hoffer, the author of Future Shock wrote "When
people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each
Today people are exercising their freedom by deciding whether they
will or will not marry, by living in nontraditional relationships, by
pursuing the career of their dreams not their parents and sometimes
by deciding when to end the lifelong commitment they made to another
person. However, I wonder if people are truly free. I wonder if our
loud claims of freedom are not simply the rattling of our chains. I
say that because few people are truly free. We all have our
limitations. As an avid lover of the wilderness, I would long to walk
for days through virgin forests unblemished by the scars of western
civilization. Unfortunately, there are few places left on this planet
where I can do that and most are located beyond my travel budget.
In our Scripture lesson today, Jesus gives us the model of two men
who lived free lives – John the Baptist and himself. The passage
begins by Jesus explaining to his disciples the role of the Baptist.
He was the prophet who called Israel back to the Law. He was the
messenger who came to prepare the way for the Messiah.
Many in Israel understood John’s message. They had heard the
stories and predictions in the synagogue. They overheard their
fathers talking about it in the marketplace. They had memorized the
passages as small children. Before the messiah would come, God would
send Elijah to announce the coming of the day of the Lord. While
everyone looked for the physical return of Elijah from heaven, God
sent the spirit of Elijah in the form of John the Baptist. He obeyed
the letter of the law, not because he was a slave to the Law, but
rather, out of his commitment to God. He words had a sting to them.
His lifestyle exposed the greed and excesses of the Jewish religion.
John never tired to be politically correct. The Jewish leaders
denounced him and refused to dance to his tune. They allowed Herod to
arrest him and eventually kill him. Yet, John lived and died a free
Then Jesus came. He played a different tune. His message surprised
even John the Baptist who expected him to come brandishing a sword.
But Jesus would not conform to the expectations of either the
Pharisees or John. He would not become a slave to their comfortable
religion of rules and regulations. He would live a free life by
loving the outcast, by healing on the Sabbath, by breaking social
norms and customs that prevented people from encountering the living
God. He would live this free life even in the face of opposition,
persecution, and eventually death.
After his experience in a Nazi death camp, Viktor Frankl wrote the
book Man's Search for Meaning, telling the story of how men
and women remained strangely, resolutely free even when all freedom
was taken away. He wrote:
who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked
through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of
bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient
proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last
of human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of
circumstances - to choose one's own way.
Mark was a young man who discovered the freedom in Christ during
his search for a position as an attorney. During his senior year in
law school, he was invited for an interview at a prestigious law
firm. The first visit went very well. They had him stay in a fancy
hotel, took him to elegant dinners. He had great discussions about
the work he would be doing if he joined the firm.
He really liked the partners of the firm. Everything was falling
into place until the last few hours of the visit. One of the members
casually mentioned that one of the firm’s clients owned and
operated a video poker and gambling operation.
Mark was shocked. He believed that such activities were a sign of
bad government and morally wrong. He took issue with the
appropriateness of representing the company with one of the partners.
The partners became defensive and justified their action because the
company’s activities were within the boundary of the law.
Mark was adamant. It may be legal but it was not ethical to
represent a company that preyed upon human frailty and ignorance.
Mark returned home and as expected received a letter informing him
that the firm had decided to move in another direction. His pastor
visited him to console him. He had lost his dream job. To his
pastor’s surprise he said,
"Actually, I feel great. I'm grateful that they gave me the
opportunity to clarify who I am and what I want from the practice of
law. I'm OK. I now have a much better idea of the kind of law I want
to practice. I just feel sorry for them because I know that many of
them feel the same way I feel, but they are trapped in the system and
can't get out."
"I'm a Christian," he said. "I'm not just living my
life on the basis of what I want, or just by what seems right to me.
I'm trying to live my life as Jesus might want."
Which man is Free?
Remember Ted? At the age of 55, Ted suffered a debilitating
stroke. He is now confined to a wheelchair with little use of his
arms and legs. He has great difficulty communicating to his family.
His pastor shared, “Forgive me if, when I now visit him, I think of
his goal of financial independence and wonder if it was worth the
Let me ask you, which man is free, the businessman who drove
himself to find financial freedom, or the young man who placed his
principles before his career?
The Yoke of Freedom
I believe that the path to freedom requires us to take up the yoke
of Christ. The imagery has a strange paradox. A yoke is the symbol of
slavery and bondage, hard labor and drudgery. Yet, Jesus gives it new
meaning by saying that his demands are easy and his yoke is light
because it is the only thing that leads to true freedom
St. Augustine first noted this when he was a young man. He had
lived a rather carefree, sometimes licentious existence. The great
saint had even fathered a child out of wedlock. Then, his life got
caught up in Christ. He was converted. After his conversion,
Augustine discovered that freedom was not expressed in doing what one
wants to do. That too easily led to slavery. Freedom means being free
to be who God intends us to be. Before that happens, our lives are
jerked around by external and alien forces, distractions that hinder
us from being all that we ought to be.
It can be great freedom to find our lives caught up in the plans
and purposes of God. In bearing a burden other than our own selfish
desires, we become free to be who God created us to be. That is true
All the material for this sermon comes from William H. Willimon,
Pulpit Resource, Vol. 27, No. 3, “True Freedom.”