Sermon delivered by Joel Snider, pastor of First Baptist Church in Rome, G.A., on Mar. 22 2009.
The Lenten Season is the opposite of Easter. It prepares us by helping us reflect on our sin and the sacrifice of Christ. It also helps us think of exactly why Christ died in order to help us, therefore, celebrate better his resurrection. I don’t know if you noticed some of the touches that we use to help increase this. The print on the inside of the Order of Worship is black. Typically, it is colorful. The mood of the music and many of the things that we do in worship are more pensive and more reflective.
As we consider our sin and the great act of Christ’s death for us on the cross during these Sundays of Lent, we have been thinking about the different images that the Bible uses to try to get across to us exactly what Christ has done on the cross. There are so many different ways that the New Testament describes it because the experience is such that, quite honestly, it is beyond words. Could you say in just 30 words or less what it means for Jesus to die for us on the cross? We could all probably make a good stab at it, and as soon as we would write our 30 words, we would realize there was so much more that we intended to say.
In these weeks, we have looked at the fact that Jesus was a substitute and took the punishment for our indictment against us. We have talked about the way that God adopts children. We were aliens and far away from God, but we have been brought into God’s family through what Christ has done.
Today, we start with an image from slavery. If we start to talk about slavery, we are indoctrinated enough in American history that we begin to get some mental pictures. We begin to think of that period from the early Colonial period through the Civil War in which people were bought and sold. You can still go to different places along the East Coast from Savannah and Augusta up through the Carolinas where you can find the remnants of buildings where people were actually put on auction. We have images of the work on plantations of cotton picking and other agricultural things. We have images in our minds of whips and chains and all the things that were used to impose control and limit people and also the physical and emotional cruelty that were all involved.
We can also think about the people who worked to free them. There were those people in the country who did work for freedom. Some people did not even like the word. As a matter of fact, someone actually asked me if I was going to use the word in the sermon. Abolitionist was considered a bad word by many people in the South during that time. I think all of us today would be thankful for the fact that there were people who stood for freedom and the abolishment of something as dastardly as slavery. There was Harriett Tubman who ran the Underground Railroad trying to help people make stops as they exited the South and headed North, perhaps as far as Canada, to be free.
The town of Overland, Ohio has been described as the town that started the Civil War. They were so fierce in their abolitionist tendencies in the school at Overland that they created many people who worked and actually sacrificed to try to help people be free from slavery.
As much as these are the images that come to our mind when we talk about slavery, American slavery, as bad as it was, was not the first slavery. There have been a lot of places, times, and locations in the world where slavery has been very prominent. If you ever look at pictures of Egypt and wonder, “How did they build those Pyramids,” just remember the movement of those stones was lubricated by the blood of slaves. The only way the Pyramids were built was because of slave labor.
All the ancient empires used slaves. Much of Rome’s wealth was built upon the backs of slaves. The work was done by slaves in many of the mines that produced much of the essential minerals for the empire. If you have seen any of the great Roman war movies, you know that the galleys in the Roman navy had slaves chained to the oars which increased their desperation in battle to do the best they could. If you defeated, being chained in the hold of the ship meant only one thing, and that was death.
American slavery is not the beginning and, unfortunately, it is not the end of slavery, but the Bible uses some very clear pictures about what it means for all of us to be slaves and captives to sin. The problem is that when we think of slavery our images revert back to slavery in America’s history. We often miss the words that are used by Jesus and Paul and other places in the Bible that refer to slavery. We don’t understand what the images are that are being called to mind that early Christians would have gotten right away. Essentially, Jesus describes himself as an abolitionist, someone who has come to destroy and set us free from the bonds of slavery that sin has over us.
In Mark 10, the disciples are arguing over who is the greatest. It is a familiar story to us. Just about the time you think the disciples are going to understand this and get it, they don’t. James and John are asking, “Can I sit on your right hand? Can I be Prime Minister? Can I be Secretary of State? When you get the kingdom going, can we have the positions of authority?”
Jesus very clearly says to them, “You don’t understand what it means to be great in the kingdom of God. This is God’s kingdom. What are you doing trying to argue about who is going to be great among you?” He talks about service and he even goes on to say that he has come not to be served but to serve. In the exact opposite of all their images of greatness, he adds at the end, “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many.”
When we hear that word ransom, we think of a kidnapping movie. We think of Without A Trace or some TV show where somebody has been taken away and they are waiting for the ransom call. They are waiting to find out how much the kidnappers want for the person who has been kidnapped. But in Bible times, this is actually a word associated with slavery. In the songs we sing, the words redeem, redemption, and redeemer are words that we throw out as big religious words. All of these words were related to the world of being captive and slave. This is the way it worked. During that day and time, if you were at war with somebody and were taken captive, the only way to get you back was to redeem you. It was to pay a price or ransom to the people who had captured you so you might be set free. At the opposite end of looking for glory and trying to see who is in control and who is in power, Jesus says, “I came to give my life to pay the price to set the prisoner free.” Me, you, each of us, all of us. His life is that price.
We miss it sometimes in the Bible. When we hear this language, we don’t understand what is really being said. Job says, “O Lord, you took up my case. You redeemed my life.” He is talking about being set free.
In Peter’s First Letter to the early church, he said, “For you know that it was not with perishable things, such as silver or gold, that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ.” Twice in First Corinthians, Paul says to that church, “You were bought with a price.” All of these are ways of saying that Jesus Christ is the price that is paid for us to be set free from our sin because that is the captivity that continues.
One of the things we can learn from Jesus saying he has come to be a ransom is that forgiveness has a price. You may think this is more religious mumbo jumbo, but we are going to have a slavery test. Think about the person in your life who is the most difficult for you to forgive. If you are fortunate and are in very good spiritual condition and have forgiven everybody, think about the person that it took the most for you to forgive.
What does it cost to forgive? What do you have to let go of? What is it that has to take place? Doesn’t it feel like a very high price to pay? “I just don’t know if I can do it?”
What does that mean? It means, “I can’t let go. I don’t know if I can pay the price. I don’t know if I can let go of the grudge.”
Do we think there is no cost in God’s forgiveness of us? Do we think that God just said, “That’s a snap. You are forgiven. OK. Forget it.” The fact that Jesus is the ransom, the fact that he is the redeemer and God’s own son reminds us that forgiveness comes at a very high cost. It really does cost us something to forgive one another and it costs God something to forgive us. It cost his son.
If you think this is just a really nice metaphor, here is the “chain” test. Before you leave today, if you have a grudge against somebody or if you hold bitterness against a person, I want you to let it go. I want you right now to decide whatever it is, “I will let it go. Forget it. It is gone. I am not even going to think about it for a few minutes or wait until the end of the sermon. I am going to do it right now. I am going to do it.” How are you doing? Have you let it go? I hear chains of slavery rattling.
What about an addiction or something that you would describe as an addiction, something in your life that becomes so much a part of what you do and how you react? I want you to let that go. Before I move to the next point in the sermon, I want you to let it go. How is that coming? I hear the chains of slavery, chains of sin rattling.
What about being a person who generously gives with joy in your heart for whatever that may mean to whomever or whatever? You always wanted to give a little more. You are one of those people who say, “If I win the lottery, I will start giving.” Why not now? Why don’t you decide right this minute that you are going to become a person who gives? Is that going any better than the others?
Sin is a very hard master, and we are captive to these chains. We cling to them and we don’t even notice that Jesus has already paid the price to set us free. He is the great abolitionist who would free us from this slavery to sin.
Soren Kierkegaard was a 17th Century Danish philosopher, but it is amazing how contemporary he can be. He has a great parable about a church in Duckland. There is a Pastor Duck and there are members of the Duck congregation. One day, they are having church at the church in Duckland and the pastor gets up and says, “I want to praise God today that we all have wings.”
All the ducks said, “Amen.”
The pastor said, “We can fly like eagles.”
All the duck congregants said, “Amen.”
He said, “There is no reason for us to be bound to the earth any longer. When we leave today, we all need to fly as God has gifted us.”
All the people in the congregation said, “Amen.” Then they all waddled home.
Jesus Christ has paid the price for our redemption. That means he is the price paid to set us free from our sins. The chains are broken. Why on earth do we want to come in and say, “Amen, Amen, Amen” and then carry these chains home?
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.