In this special Fourth of July edition, allow me to share my message from our community patriotic service this past Sunday evening. Here, with the help of Jesus’ declaration of where real freedom lies, I talk about what freedom is and how we can preserve it for future generations. Happy Fourth of July!
Where Real Freedom Lies
I have a confession to make: I love the Fourth of July. Now, I don’t necessarily think I’m more patriotic than anybody else. I think the reason I love the Fourth of July so much is because growing up my family always made such a big deal out of it. We’d cook out. We’d have friends over. We’d enjoy hanging out with neighbors. And we’d blow stuff up. A lot of stuff. That’s the real reason I love the Fourth of July: I love fireworks.
I think the earliest memory I have of loving fireworks is when we were at my uncle and aunt’s house for the Fourth shooting off all manner of things (most of which were not then legal within the city limits…), when one of the neighbors brought out one of those old, metal coffee cans filled completely to capacity with bottle rockets. He had tied all the fuses together and had one long fuse hanging out the bottom of the side of the can. When he lit it, it was like magic. Bottle rockets went everywhere. I was inspired. I’ve since held Roman candles in my hand while firing them high into the air. I’ve actually held one in each hand. I’ve lit bottle rockets in my hand and then tossed them out over a lake at the last second. (By the way, bottle rockets still explode under water and it really is kind of cool.) I’ve timed mortar shell launches with my best friend, neither of us being particularly safe with our lighting, but the resulting show was pretty cool. I’ve lit strands of up to 32,000 Black Cats and watched with delight as they went off in beautifully chaotic fashion…for over ten minutes. Perhaps my favorite memory of the Fourth, though, was watching fireworks explode over the Ohio River from the Abraham Lincoln Bridge separating Louisville, KY from Jeffersonville, IN when a really cute girl was pressed up next to me, our hands gently touching for the first time, even though neither of us had acknowledged even to ourselves that we had feelings for each other. (In case you’re getting worried, I’m talking about Lisa!)
Watching and participating in blowing stuff up, though, isn’t the only reason I like the Fourth of July. I’m also really proud of my country. In spite of warts and recent turmoil, I am thoroughly convinced that we live in the greatest nation in the world. Now, lots of nations have some sort of a celebration of either their founding or their attaining independence or the rising-to-power of the current political dynasty. What makes ours unique, though, is that we’re not just proclaiming, “Yay, our country is great!” We’re proclaiming, “Yay, our country is free!” You see, freedom is a big deal in the world we live in today. It is a commodity that far too few people enjoy. Countless millions live with the illusion of freedom, but what they really have is the ability to run freely in the small box their government affords them. What we have in this country is something different, something richer, something deeper.
But here’s the thing about this incredible freedom: It has to be anchored to something even larger than itself. Here’s the other thing: Understood properly, it does not exist for its own sake, but rather points forward to a freedom even deeper and larger than we can possibly imagine. And on this evening when we are gathered to celebrate our great freedom together, I would like to take just a few minutes to talk with you about this greater freedom. In order to do this, we are going to take a brief look at something Jesus said about what exactly freedom is and what obtaining it can do for us.
When the apostle John wrote his Gospel, he was writing about 30 years after the other guys had died. While he tells a couple of the same stories as they did, he was writing for a different purpose and so included a number of different episodes. He also spends more time unpacking the final week of Jesus’ life. One of John’s main concerns is to present Jesus as fully God. To this end, he includes several key teaching blocks when Jesus revealed significant aspects of His divine nature. One of these comes in John 8.
In John 8:12 the apostle writes this: “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” This prompts an immediate debate with the Pharisees about Jesus’ identity and mission. Eventually, He points forward toward His eventual death on the cross as proof of the things He is claiming about Himself. As He speaks, most of the Pharisees gathered before Him simply tune Him out. They are so stuck on the way they understand the world and God Himself to operate that His words seem like so much nonsense to them. But there are some folks in the crowd who are interested. After listening to the things He’s saying in light of some of the things He had already done, they begin to think that perhaps there’s something to this Jesus guy after all. To this group Jesus had something to say to encourage them forward in their journey.
Check this out in v. 31 now: “So Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’” Now, at first hearing, this blows the minds of the folks gathered there. Their entire lives they had been taught that they were something special, that they were free from the forces of the world, because of their genetic heritage. Because they were children of Abraham, they were free by birth. How was Jesus going to tell them that they were free when they believed in His words? How could His words be greater than Abraham? He certainly wasn’t, they thought.
But, where they were speaking in purely physical terms, Jesus was talking about a deeper, spiritual reality. The spiritual reality was that they were slaves to sin. The only way they were going to find real and lasting freedom was when they broke sin’s power over them. And that was only going to happen when they committed themselves to His words, words which would eventually be given substance by His sacrificial death on a cross.
Now, this is big stuff, but let’s narrow our focus to just this idea that knowing the truth is what makes us free. How is that? Well, what is freedom? It is fundamentally about having the ability to do as we please without anyone to stop us. But, if we’re honest, all of us have the desire to do some things that would probably get us locked up if we actually followed through on them. In other words, if we did everything we pleased, we would lose the ability to do as we please. Most notably, there would be someone to stop us if we tried. Okay, so what does that mean? Well…it means that as long as we have those desires in us, we’re not really free. As long as we have sin, to use the theological word for this, in us, we’re not going to be really free. This is why a couple of verses later Jesus says this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
So then, what do we do with this? Well, let’s put this in somewhat different terms by jumping forward a bit and then working back to this place. If any society is going to be free, it cannot have many laws and the state must be small. Think about why. The more laws that are on the books, the more things a person might want to do but can’t without facing the threat of punishment. In other words, the more laws that are on the books, the less free we are. And, the larger the state, the more laws that will be on the books. But think a bit further about why some society would have many laws on the book versus having fewer. Such a state of affairs stems from one of a couple of circumstances. Either the nation is ruled by an autocrat of some sort who genuinely believes he knows better than his people and they must be compelled to behave like he thinks they should behave. The other option is that the character of the people has waned such that more and more are seeking to do things which are harmful to people, destructive of property, or just down right evil. When people won’t do what is right of their own accord, the state has to…encourage…them in this direction by force of law paired with the threat of punishment for breaking it.
One way to put this is that if people are not naturally virtuous, if they do not naturally pursue ends and behaviors that are actively to the benefit of the people and places around them, they must be goaded in this direction to prevent the total breakdown of society. But, just as freedom does not exist for itself or on its own, neither does virtue. Virtue has a source. That source is a faith in some God higher than ourselves. Specifically, it requires faith in a God who is concerned with our day-to-day behavior and calls us to a higher standard than we would pursue on our own. Now, there are several different religions which offer some kind of a call to character. Only a very few, though—one in particular—have impacted whole cultures to the good of the majority of their people. Christianity stands out as unique in this regard. It is not incidental that the rise of freedom on a global scale coincided with a relatively tiny slice of human history that began with a concerted effort to make the Scriptures a central part of the life of as many people as possible. Furthermore, the nation that is not only the freest in the world, but which has maintained this freedom longer than any other in the whole history of humanity, is the one that was founded on explicitly Christian ideals.
The conclusion here that is truly inescapable is that there is some kind of a connection between the Christian faith and human freedom both spiritually, but also politically when wise leaders make a genuine effort to see those ideals applied more broadly than on a personal basis. The impact is even greater when a majority of the people of the nation pursue the Christian faith in at least a cursory manner and Christian character is held out as desirable and praiseworthy. It is no coincidence that as our nation has turned from its Christian heritage, the government has grown, laws have proliferated, and freedom has decreased to the point that battles over even basic expressions of freedom require court intervention to protect.
But, if this is a surprise at all, it should not be. With all of this in mind, consider again what Jesus said: “If you abide in my words, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Freedom is found when we know the truth and it is Jesus’ words which point us to the truth. And why? Because it is Jesus’ words which call us to die to self, to that part of our self which desires sin and is thus held captive under its sway. It is Jesus’ words which call us to find life by making Him the Lord of our lives and unleashing the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit in us. It is Jesus’ words which call us to love our neighbors and even our enemies. His words call us to leave behind worry and fear, trading them instead for faith and confidence in our heavenly Father who loves us more than anything else in all of creation. His words call us to care more about what’s wrong on the inside than what’s right on the outside. His words call us to virtue, the kind of virtue that makes freedom possible.
So, what do we do with all of this? Two things. First, we live it. If we want to see freedom sustained and expanded, we cannot rely on anyone else to do what it takes to see this happen. Freedom requires virtue which requires faith. Absent faith and virtue there is no freedom. So, we make certain that we are ourselves living faith-filled, virtuous lives. We make the words of Jesus our constant companion and seek to apply them in every situation of our lives. If you cannot sit there where you are and declare with confidence that you are a follower of Jesus, then you are not as free as you could be. Let me invite you here and now to change that. Let Jesus walk into your life as Lord and walk yourself into the freest freedom you will ever know. We teach our children and grandchildren to do the same.
And this points to the second thing we can do. The more people who pursue this faith-filled life of virtue the freer we will all be. If our neighbors aren’t living like this, the natural thing to assume is that they don’t know or understand it. So let’s help them understand it. The other way to put this is that we make disciples everywhere we go. After all, Jesus Himself said that it is His truest disciples who know the truth that brings freedom. Once we are sure we are His disciples, we call everyone around us to the same thing. We do it with love and humility as our guides. We do it gently, but boldly. But most of all, we do it. This Fourth of July, let us live the truth that makes us free, let us call the world around us, starting with our friends and neighbors, to do the same, and let us live as free people who have a reason to celebrate.
May God bless you as you pursue this and may He bless this great nation as we strive to not forget it. May God bless this great nation as we seek Him and the life that only He can bring. May God bless this great nation as we celebrate with gratitude the God who has made us free.