Totally Awesome!

It’s Easter! How do you feel about that? More than a few people – inside as well as outside the Christian church – tend to lose the wonder and awe of Easter. People have heard the Easter story before. They know how it ends, and so it tends to lose a bit of an edge for some. But imagine the wonder and delight of being a first timer to this story!

I came across a true story by Pastor Chuck Swindoll about a kindergarten teacher in a Christian school who was determining how much religious training each of her students had. While talking with one little boy to whom the story of Jesus was obviously brand-new, she began relating the story to him about Jesus’ death on the cross. When he asked what a cross was, she picked up some sticks and fashioned a crude one. She then explained that Jesus was nailed to something like this, and then He died.

With downcast eyes the boy quietly acknowledged, “Aw, that’s too bad.” In the very next breath, however, the teacher told the boy that Jesus rose again. “He came back to life and is alive!” The boy’s little eyes got as big as saucers and exclaimed, “That’s totally awesome!” He’s right. Easter is totally awesome! Let’s not get ourselves to the place where we lose sight of it.

Think about it. Easter came unexpectedly. The Easter story is filled with surprise, astonishment, confusion, and fear. Women went to the tomb to hold a funeral service. They brought their spices to anoint the dead body and show their last respects to their dead friend, Jesus. Instead, they found the stone rolled away, an empty tomb, and two dazzling angels who asked why they were looking for someone who’s alive among the dead. They heard an announcement they didn’t anticipate – “He’s not here; He has been raised.” Then the angel reminded them of the predictions Jesus made about His dying and rising. And when they remembered the words of Jesus, they ran back from the empty tomb with the angel’s announcement to the disciples and told them of the experience.

The disciples responded with total unbelief. Dead is dead, they reasoned. What you are telling us sounds like a silly fantasy. You women are just tired and traumatized, and your imaginations have gone wild.

Peter, one of the disciples, ran out to the cemetery and found the empty tomb with the linen cloths Jesus had been wrapped in strewn about. He went home wondering what was happening. It appears that no one expected this to happen (except Jesus who predicted three times it would happen).

Soon though, as Luke and the other gospel writers tell us, the disciples found themselves having an encounter with the risen, living Jesus. He appeared to them eleven times in six weeks, in various locations – at a lake, in the Upper Room. They must have even been peeking around street corners expecting to run into Jesus.

Luke tells us in the book of Acts that Paul, an enemy of the Christian movement, encountered Christ on the road to Damascus and became a believer. Paul wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians that not only did he see Jesus, but five hundred others saw the risen Christ as well!

The news that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead is definitely something out of the ordinary. It is a shattering historical event! Death, which had been irreversible, had suddenly become reversible in the resurrection of Jesus. He is risen. He is risen indeed! He’s alive, and it really is totally awesome!

Now, I know that since that time, skeptics have looked at this Easter story and thought the disciples were being gullible. But let me ask you, do these women look gullible? Did they all have the same hallucination and encounter with those angels? And do the disciples look gullible? They refused to believe the story. In fact, their response was quite disappointing. They were the Lord’s right-hand men and had seen Jesus do amazing, miraculous things like raising people back to life. They had heard His predictions about dying and rising. Yet this report from the women seemed to be an idle tale, too far out in left field to be true.

Others point to the Easter story simply as wishful thinking. These people wanted Jesus to be alive, and so they are living in a denial of sorts.

However, the women did not come out to the tomb with spices just in case Jesus might be alive. They came to anoint a dead body.

Some speculated it was a conspiracy. The disciples cooked it up to keep the Jesus movement going. But if that is true, then why would each of them die as a martyr for the cause of Christ, for an untruth they had concocted? Would you die for a lie? That doesn’t make sense.

We know from history that conspiracies unravel over time. The account of Jesus being raised from the dead has stood the test of time and the investigations of some of the brightest people who have checked out this evidence. The truth is, Jesus was dead. He was crucified on a cross, buried in a rich man’s tomb, and now He is risen! That, my friends, is totally awesome! Give me an amen? Amen!

What makes it totally awesome for you and me are the implications of that news for our lives. Easter means, first of all, that death no longer has the last word over those who trust in Jesus Christ. Because He lives, you shall live also forever. That is a promise for us to build our lives upon!

Paul, the apostle, describes for the believer in Christ that death is simply falling asleep. I read of a pastor told of a memory from his childhood. His family was driving home from a long trip, and he fell asleep in the backseat of the station wagon. The next thing he experienced was opening his eyes to see the sun shining through his bedroom window where his parents had carefully placed him. He was home.

Those of us who trust in Christ are promised that when we breathe our last breath in this life we will awaken from our sleep in a place that has been prepared for us by Jesus. He promised “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go and prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare that place for you, I will come again and take you to myself that where I am, you may be also” (John 14:2). That is our promise.

I have watched unbelievers without the solace of Easter collapse at the grave site of a loved one in absolute despair and fear. They have nothing to hang on to. I’m here to tell you today – it doesn’t have to be like that for you. Jesus has conquered death. He’s taken the sting out of it, and He shares that victory with those who trust in Him. Death is no longer a period, but a comma. Death is no longer a wall but a door through which we pass to be with Him for eternity. When the Christian dies, it’s more like a graduation, a change of address where we will go to be with our Lord Jesus. Someone once made this remarkable statement: The world holds nothing but empty promises, but at Easter time, Jesus holds out to us emptiness full of promises.

The American evangelist, Dwight L Moody, once remarked toward the end of his life, “One day you will hear that Dwight L Moody is dead. Don’t believe it! I will then be alive as never before!” When two Nazi guards came to escort Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his prison cell to the gallows for his execution, Bonhoeffer took a friend aside and said to him, “This is the end, but for me it’s the beginning of life.”

That is the implications of Easter for you and me. Totally awesome, right? Amen! The resurrection of Jesus is totally awesome because it means I am forgiven and I no longer have to carry my fears, guilt, and shame for my past. God has put his stamp of affirmation upon Christ’s sacrifice for my sins by raising Him from the grave. I am forgiven! It was God’s plan that Jesus would be the perfect payment for my sins, and that He would raise Him, affirming the payment for my sins, once and for all! Anything I have ever thought, said, or done – past, present, or future – is now covered by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. I have received forgiveness by trusting in Him as my risen Savior. No longer do I have to live my days weighted down and despairing over my sin. I can approach the throne of grace confidently asking for forgiveness, being pointed to the cross, and hearing the words, You are forgiven.

That is a gift of grace. The accusing voice is silenced, and I get a new start as I trust in God’s grace in Christ. That, my friends, is totally awesome! Amen!

This Easter news is totally awesome because you and I know there will be moments in our lives when we will hurt emotionally, physically, and spiritually. We will shed tears along the way, but we do not have to face those moments alone. You see, we have an eternal friend, the risen Jesus Christ, who has promised to never leave us orphaned. He will come to you. He stands at the door and knocks, and promises to have an intimate, personal relationship with us throughout the rest of our lives. We do not have to face another single moment alone. Having walked in the flesh Himself, Jesus understands what we go through. He empathizes with our pains and our loneliness.

As I listen to Him and His word in my Bible, as I call out to Him in my prayers, and taste the bread and wine at the Lord’s Supper, Jesus reminds me again and again of His own personal suffering. He shows me His nail-pierced hands and feet. He reminds me He knows what life can be like, but He is there to walk alongside of me, even during the most painful moments.

That is the Easter promise to you as you follow Him. And that is totally awesome! Amen! Amen.

Now let me ask you a question today in light of all we’ve talked about: On which side of Easter are you living right now? Are you living in the dark, dreary, defeated uncertainty of Saturday before resurrection, or are you living on the blessed, beautiful side of the resurrection? Each one of us has received an invitation to step into Sunday with the risen Jesus and face life and death with confidence and assurance knowing eternal life is ours through trusting in Christ.

I encourage you this day, if you haven’t already done so, step into Sunday and place your trust in the risen Jesus Christ for your life and eternity. Ask Him into your life today, and discover for yourself that the risen Jesus Christ is totally awesome! Amen!

God Loves Lost People

Why did Jesus, on that first Palm Sunday, enter Jerusalem’s gates riding the back of a donkey, with a small band of disciples singing His praise? “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest”? Why would the Lord of eternity, having taken on the limits of the world He created, in the form of a man and knowing He was going be executed by crucifixion, surrender to His executioners?

It’s an interesting truth in the phrase – peace in heaven – that at Jesus’ birth the angels sang, “Peace on earth. Good will toward men.” The Prince of Peace came to reconcile a broken rebel world to a holy God. Now, as He comes through Jerusalem’s gates at the beginning of Passion Week, knowing He was going to the cross, He is about to complete the mission the Father gave Him at His birth – to reconcile all sinners to a holy God in a relationship of forgiving love by faith.

So Jesus willingly became a man. Jesus, though King of eternity, was willing to go to the cross. Why? Because He wanted to obey His Father’s mission, and because God loves lost people. Each one of us is precious and important to God. Jesus, you remember, said “I have come to seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10). God loves lost people.

I remember reading a story by Ken Davis. It is from his book with an intriguing title: “I Never Saw the Skunk, but I Struggled to Breathe.” He tells about when he was a newlywed. As they got ready for the day, his wife had laid her wedding ring on the sink. He picked it up thinking it would be a fun joke to hide it from her. At the end of the day, before they went to bed, she said casually, “Have you seen my wedding ring?”
“No,” he said thinking it would be fun to extend the joke.

Several hours later in the middle of the night, he awakened and heard his wife sobbing uncontrollably. “What’s wrong?”he asked.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Come on, now,” he said. “Something’s terribly wrong.”
And she blurted out, “I lost my wedding ring!”
He said with a smile of amusement, “Oh, honey. Don’t worry. I was just playing a joke on you. I hid your wedding ring and thought it’d be fun for you to think it was lost.”
“WHAT?” she growled.
He explained he’d be the hero telling her he had the ring and she didn’t have to worry. He never saw her fist coming in the dark, but he sure felt it when it landed. That was the only time in his married life that she ever hit him, and he never again took her wedding ring.

Have you ever lost something very precious to you, so much so that you are desperate to find it? Maybe it’s your child who has wandered off or maybe something else of extreme value. You are precious and important to God, our heavenly Father; His heart is desperate to find you and enter into a relationship of love with His children all over the globe. That’s why Jesus came. God loves lost people and wants to bring us back into a relationship of grace and forgiveness with Him by faith.

When I use the term “lost,” I’m not talking about salvation, though it is possible in being lost that we are actually among those who don’t understand God’s salvation in Jesus Christ. Today I am using “lost” more as a descriptive term to describe the relationship of our proximity to God. So in the story of the prodigal son who left his father and went to the far country, it says that he was lost, and later when he came home, he was found. He was dead, but now is alive again. I’m talking about being lost in the sense of living the journey of life far from God, or living as if God doesn’t exist.

When I was an eight-year-old boy, I was with my family on a vacation at a lake called Big Wolf Lake in northern Minnesota. I and a friend I’d met that week at the resort, decided we were going to walk on the beach about a quarter of a mile to a big evergreen tree that hung out over the water. It held a rope swing that let you swing from the bank and plunge into the water. It was great fun, and we couldn’t wait to get there.

But as we walked the beach to the rope swing, a mean, growling dog barred our way in front of one of the cabins. He was on a chain, but there was no way around him. So we went behind the cabin and started on a path into the woods that we thought would take us to that rope swing. We walked farther and farther on that path thinking we were almost there. Much to our shock and disappointment when we came out of the woods, we were actually several miles away on the south end of the lake, and I remember the sinking feeling of knowing exactly where I was, but having no idea how to return back to the resort or how to get to that tree with the rope swing. I was lost. I knew where I was, but I was powerless to get back home.

Have you ever felt like that, like you’re lost on the journey of life? In Luke chapter 15, Jesus tells several parables of the lost. The first one is about a lost sheep. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep in order to find the one that has strayed away and was in peril, then bring it home on his shoulders rejoicing.

Then Jesus tells of a woman who had lost a coin. She frantically searched the whole house until she found it, then she threw a party that probably cost more than the coin she lost. Pastors and biblical scholars refer to a wedding headband that husbands gave their wives in biblical times that had ten coins on it. If the wife were ever unfaithful to her marriage vows, a coin would be removed from that headband. So the woman in this parable lost more than the coin. In losing the coin, her reputation was at stake.

Then Jesus told the story of two lost sons – one a prodigal and one was lost in his father’s house. One, who makes a journey of rebellious defiance, rejecting his father, and the other who stays and does all the right things, but for all the wrong reasons and never understands the love of his father. The prodigal treats his father like he’s dead. He demands the money that would be a part of his inheritance when his father passed away. All he wants from his father is money.

Sometimes we people treat God that way. We live as if God is dead, and the only time we pray is if we want something. Give me a job, bless me with this, heal my sick child, give me more money, bless me God. (I don’t want to be in a relationship with you; I don’t want to live in your house; I don’t want to serve you; I don’t want to share the journey of life with you; I don’t believe your values as the core essence of what life is about; I don’t want to love; I don’t want to serve you; I just want you to provide for me.) Gimme God, and then I’ll go far from you in my life.

The prodigal spends all he has in self-indulgent life – life as a party – and he can’t get enough booze or moments of pleasure to fulfill him. He wants pleasure without any responsibility until he’s broke and broken – a Jewish boy in the pigpen. And then a famine comes, and he’s desperately in need.

I’ve met many people through the years who are spiritually and emotionally lost. Lost in grief. Lost in an affair. Lost in one-night stands with strangers. Lost in depression. Lost in a variety of addictions. Lost in pursuing the world’s definition of success, and all they are doing as they chase self-fulfillment. At some point in our lostness we all sing the rock song with Mick Jagger, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”

So broke and broken, empty and disillusioned, we’re lost.

It says of the prodigal that he came to his senses. It literally says his “right mind returned.” It’s interesting because the biblical work for repentance means a change of mind. So, in awakening to the truth in his bankrupt spiritual condition where he had rebelled against his father, he remembers that he has a Father to go home to. And he decides to go home. He changes his direction of life to turn back to his Father in heaven.

God loves lost people. That’s why Jesus went to the cross – to die for the sins of rebels who have run far from the Father.

I also personally relate very well to the elder brother who stays at home but does not want to extend grace or mercy to his foolish brother who has spent his father’s money. There’s no word for grace in his vocabulary. He wants nothing to do with his brother who had returned. And often in my own heart – like that cold-hearted elder brother – I judge people. I decide who God loves and who God doesn’t love. I decide who God would welcome and who he wouldn’t welcome. I decide that a life with God is based on merit and performance. But the problem in that mind set is I never understand that my relationship with God is based on love and forgiveness from the heart of the Father who comes out to the party to tell the older brother, “All that I have is yours.”

Wherever you are on your life journey today, I pray you would wake up and remember, you have a Father in heaven who loves you. Wake up enough to realize that Jesus, the King, was willing to give up all His power to come to earth and enter the gates of Jerusalem in the humility of riding on a donkey’s back. He was willing to submit Himself to the suffering and whipping, the crown of thorns and the crucifixion, so that in His name we might believe we have the forgiveness of sin.

Are you lost? God loves lost people. His arms are open wide, and He runs to embrace you and say to you, “You are my child. You belong to me. I will never leave you or forsake you. I will never give up on you. I forgive you. Live in my love.”

God, it’s good to be home. Amen.

A Best-of-the-Best Church

Recently a local newspaper ran a survey called the Best-of-the-Best in our area. They gave people the opportunity to send in their favorite restaurants, favorite hair salon, and all sorts of favorite places. They even had a best-church category. People could vote on their favorites by Internet.

When I saw the church category, it got me wondering, What makes for a best-of-the-best church? How would you answer that? Some might say it is a church with a great music program. Perhaps it has a terrific choir or the best band in the area to lead worship. Someone else may say it is the church with the most attractive architecture. Somebody might say it is the church with great childcare, a Sunday school program, youth program, adult education program, seniors’ ministries program. Or maybe someone would say it is a church whose pastors have a lot of charisma and can entertain people during the sermon.

When it comes to asking what makes for a best-of-the-best church, I’m sure I would get as many answers as people who are listening today. However, the best place to look for an answer is Scripture, isn’t it? The Apostle Paul tells us in today’s passage what he’s looking for in a church. The funny thing is though, he doesn’t mention any of those things I’ve shared with you so far. Actually, we find Paul coaching a congregation about doing life together as a church. Paul is acting as a pastor and a consultant. He’s just spent a good share of his letter to the Galatians telling them the importance of the gospel message and not losing it. Jesus is everything.

I shared a formula with you earlier: Jesus plus Nothing Equals Everything. Do not add anything onto that gospel, Paul says. But now he finishes up by prescribing what makes a best-of-the-best church in God’s sight. What he describes is a community based upon the gospel.

In this final section of his letter, Paul first points out that a best-of-the-best church in God’s sight has strong fellowship and community. They love each another. They take care of one another. For instance in chapter 5, verse 26, Paul says that God had in mind a community of folks who are not competing with each another. No oversized egos looking down on everyone else with a sense of conceit. No superiority complexes, no comparing and keeping score or envying what others have. The ground at the foot of the cross is absolutely level. We’re partners in Christ.

Paul goes on to say in chapter 6, verse 1 to, in fact, endorse congregations when people have their slip ups and moral failings. Don’t automatically write them off. Instead, understand that no one is perfect. We are all sinners and won’t be perfect until Christ comes to take us home. In this gospel community, people gently work to restore one another when there is a slipup.

Of course, when a moral failing happens or the toes of another brother or sister in Christ are stepped on, accountability and even discipline is necessary. A confrontation will take place, as Jesus Himself instructed it should, in order to get the person back on track. But it’s done gently, with a spirit of humility and love. It’s done with an attitude that this person is my brother or sister for whom Jesus died. I could have been the one who sinned. Or even, I better be careful because someday it could be me. It’s a gentle spirit that seeks to restore.

And then Paul adds something else to his list of best-of-the-best. He says a gospel community is where people are taking care of each other. They bear one another’s burdens, meaning they pray for one another, they serve one another, they are present for one another.

Recently I was in a little prayer service in the sanctuary of my congregation. A person in a small group within our church had an illness, which was just getting worse. So they called the group together to be with this person, anoint her with oil, and pray for her healing and relief. It was a touching thing.

I have a guy in my Friday men’s Bible study group who has a great big heart for Jesus. He also has a great big heart for another brother in our group whose wife recently passed away. He’s gone to sit with him in his grief. He calls him regularly. He helped him move out of his house and helped him set up in his new place. He is constantly praying for him. The other day he said to me, “I can’t get him off of my mind. I’m so worried about him.” This is what Paul’s talking about – bearing each others’ burdens.

Years ago I came across a wonderful story years ago in a book call, Stories for the Journey written by William White. He tells of a European seminary professor named Hans and his wife Enid. World War II forced them to flee to America where Hans found a job teaching at a seminary. He was warm, gentle, and loved by students. He brought Scripture to life for them.

Hans and Enid were very much in love. Nearly every day they took long walks together. They held hands and always sat close in church. One day Enid died, which overwhelmed Hans with sorrow. Worried because Hans wouldn’t eat or take walks, the seminary president, along with three other friends, visited Hans regularly. Still, he remained lonely and depressed. He was experiencing “the dark night of the soul.” Hans said to his friends. He said “I’m no longer able to pray. In fact, I’m not certain I even believe anymore.”

After a moment of silence, the seminary president said, “Then we will believe for you! We will make your confession for you. We will pray for you.” So the four men met daily in prayer asking God to restore the gift of faith to their dear friend.

Many months later as the four gathered with Hans, he smiled and said, “It’s no longer necessary for you to pray for me. Today I would like you to pray with me.” The dark night of the soul had passed. Instead of carrying Hans to Jesus on a stretcher, they had carried him on their prayers. And he had found healing.

Paul continues. He says that in the gospel community, everyone acts responsibly. They are doing their part in working for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ. They are carrying their own load. Everyone is in ministry. Each one has a sense of calling to serve to make a difference for Jesus Christ. There are no spectators cheering everyone else on. The old adage let somebody else do it doesn’t exist in this congregation. Everybody is up to something for the gospel.

In the next verse, Paul says they not only love each other, they love their pastors and treat them well. They pay them a fair wage for their leadership and their teaching of God’s word.

The best-of-the-best church has a commitment to invest in people, invest their lives and resources wisely instead of pursuing personal, selfish, sinful desires and pleasures that demand to be fed inside of us. Instead of a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude, which leads to a dead end, people are pursuing a healthier alternative, a life-giving choice. Paul calls it sowing to the Spirit. It means investing oneself and obeying the Holy Spirit. Pleasing the Holy Spirit, submiting to the Holy Spirit, being Spirit-controlled, and obeying the Holy Spirit and God’s word.

What does sowing in the Spirit look like? It means to follow the lead of the Spirit.

I’m reminded of the story of Philip in Acts chapter 8. The Holy Spirit told him while he was in the wilderness to tell an Ethiopian eunuch about Jesus. Philip obeyed and the man met Jesus Christ and believed.

Sowing in the Spirit is being on call to the Spirit, pursuing Holy Spirit nudges when He brings somebody to mind who perhaps needs a phone call from you. It’s applying Jesus’ Word to life, being a doer of the Word. Sowing to the Spirit is boldly witnessing to others about what Christ has done for them, pointing them to the most important person in your life – Jesus Christ. It’s giving of your personal resources for the cause of the kingdom. It’s serving others in Christ’s name. Paul says that is where life is to be found, and it is what produces a special spirit in the church. It’s an exciting new life, an excitement as lives are being changed and shaped into the image of Jesus, and it’s actually eternal.

In verses nine and ten of chapter 6, Paul says, a best-of-the-best church in God’s sight is tirelessly doing what is good for all but especially for the family of faith. They shine the love of Jesus Christ into other people’s lives when opportunities arrive. For instance, your church might be known for ministering in a special way to senior citizens, alcoholics, young children, or broken families. They are known for their love and concern, but they’re also known for their love for one another. Jesus said to “Love one another as I have loved you. By this, all people will know you are my disciples.” They are walking in obedience to the new commandment Jesus gave.

When people are being loved like that, word gets out on the community grapevine that this is a group of people who love each other, take care of each other, and value each other. People are drawn in out of pure curiosity, because they hunger and thirst for love. They are actually drawn in and become part of that picture of God’s community of grace.

Finally (and most importantly of all), the best-of-the-best churches in God’s sight wave the banner of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul says they live by it. Their boast is not in themselves and what they’re doing or not doing but in the cross of Jesus Christ – the gospel! Christ is their one foundation. They’re not about man-made rules, traditions, and customs; They are all about Christ – crucified for our sins – the gospel.

They can’t hear that message enough. They love it, trust it, and understand that they are sinners themselves, saved by the amazing grace of God through Jesus Christ, and they would be lost without Jesus and what He did for them at the cross. They rejoice in it. They marvel at it every time they gather for worship and Bible study. They excitedly teach it to their children and explain it to their friends, neighbors, and acquaintances who perhaps haven’t heard or even paid attention to the good news of what God has done for them in Jesus Christ. They know it is the gospel and the gospel alone that makes a person a new creation – that the Holy Spirit works through that message making a person born again. He enlightens, transforms, and shapes a person through the telling of the gospel story of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen.

This church views the gospel message as the most precious treasure the church has to offer the world. In verses 16 – 18, Paul writes that he knows in this gospel community the gospel first of all brings people peace.
• Peace with God. I’m justified by the cross by faith in Jesus.
• Peace with others. I have a new confidence in Christ. I am free to love other people.
• Peace with myself. I no longer have to wonder if I’ve done enough to merit God’s love in my life. I have found mercy, forgiveness for my sins, a new start, and freedom from the past guilt.

We have a purpose. Paul talked of his scars being the marks of Jesus. I am called to carry the cross for Jesus into the world, which might even involve suffering and sacrifice, but what a mighty cause it is that brings us grace God’s reward at Christ’s expense, unmerited love that changes us and strengthens us.

All of these things, my dear friends, make up a best-of-the-best church according to God’s Word. I don’t know about you, but I want to belong to a church like that. I want to build a church like that.

Today’s appeal is simply this: Let us commit ourselves to becoming members like that in our own local church: Gospel centered, Spirit infused, lovers of others, caregivers of each other – doing goodwill in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Stand Firm in Your Freedom

We value political freedom in the United States. On Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and the Fourth of July, we pause as a nation and celebrate that freedom. We remember the sacrifices made in order to make freedom a reality for us.

You and I know from history that it takes a great deal of vigilance and responsibility for a nation to maintain their political independence. This is just as true in regard to the spiritual freedom Christians have in Christ. We are told this in today’s passage. It is the gist of Galatians 5. The apostle Paul is waving the flag of Christian freedom, and in the first twelve verses he tells us not to lose our gospel freedom. You see, Paul has spent the first four chapters of this letter proclaiming our freedom in Christ Jesus.
• Freedom from the fear of wondering if I have done enough to receive salvation from God.
• Freedom from a sense of condemnation that I will never measure up. Therefore, God can never love me.
• Freedom from the power of death. What’s going to happen to me when I breathe my last breath in this world.
• Freedom from disappointments, which come from worshiping idols that cannot deliver life. Christ’s whole ministry, Paul points out, was to liberate us and set us free from sin and its consequences.

Jesus sets us free from trying to earn our way into a right relationship with God and the guilt that comes with that.

Paul begins his passage today by saying, “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm (in that freedom.)” That phrase, “stand firm,” is a military term. Be diligent, be alert, stand strong, because you can lose your freedom. That was Paul’s fear for the Galatian Christians who were listening to false teachers who were telling them they needed to do certain things in addition to trusting in Christ for salvation. Paul told them that if they gave into circumcision and other Jewish rules, they would cut themselves off from grace by living under the law, and Christ would be of no benefit to them. Paul tells them, Standing firm means not losing your freedom. Do not give it up by adding something onto it. Christ Jesus plus Nothing Equals Everything – that is the gospel. Don’t get caught up in legalistic rule keeping. Instead, keep believing the promises of the gospel. Keep the faith.

Then Paul describes the true expression of faith: wait eagerly for the hope of righteousness in the future. It means we were meant to live with hope, confidence, and assurance. We know where we’re headed – heaven. We know the righteousness of Jesus Christ is ours now, and when God looks at us, He sees us as His sons and daughters.

True expression of faith also means being active in love. Our faith in God’s promises frees us up. It produces and energizes within us a love for God and all He’s done for us. We want to serve Him. We want to live under Him in His kingdom. We want to please Him out of gratitude for what He has done for us. But it is also a faith active in love for others. We are no longer in competition, no longer in need of manipulating others in order to make us feel better about ourselves. Because we are sons and daughters of God, we are free to love others as a result of the security we have in Christ.

Paul tells us to keep the faith! Jesus plus Nothing Equals Everything. You are free in Christ! Stand firm in that. Don’t let anyone take that from you. Trust in it. Live by it.

I came across a wonderful story that captures Paul’s sentiment. On January 28, 1945, as World War II was coming to a close, 121 elite Army Rangers liberated more than 500 prisoners of war – mostly Americans – from a Japanese prison camp near Cabanatuan in the Philippines. The, prisoners, many of whom were survivors of the infamous Bataan death March, were in awful condition, physically and emotionally. The primary Japanese guard unit had left the camp because of Japan’s massive retreat from the Philippines, and the new situation was precarious. Japanese troops were still around and in the camp, but kept their distance. The prisoners didn’t quite know what to make of their new freedom, if freedom was in fact what it was. Then, without warning, the American Rangers swept upon the camp in furious force.

One of the most interesting facets of the story was the reaction of many of the prisoners. They were so defeated, diseased, and familiar with deceit that many needed to be convinced they were actually free! Was it a trick, a trap? Was it real?

One prisoner, Capt. Bert Bank, struggling with blindness caused by a vitamin deficiency, couldn’t clearly make out his would-be rescuers. He refused to budge. Finally a soldier walked up to him, tugged his arm, and said, “What’s wrong with you? Don’t you want to be free?” Bank, who was from Alabama, recognized the familiar southern accent of his questioner. A smile formed on his lips, and he willingly and thankfully began his journey to freedom trusting in that voice.

That is what we are called to do as followers of Jesus Christ. Trust in the voice of that Gospel. You are free in Jesus Christ. Trust the promises.

Paul goes on to say in verses 13 through 15, Don’t abuse your gospel freedom. In the first section, Paul clearly told them, You can lose your gospel freedom by adding something on to the gospel, by living under the law as you follow a bunch of do’s and don’ts. The gospel, however, is not simply good advice, it is Good News. It tells us what has been done for us. Now he’s pointing out that we can actually mess up our new lives in Christ by abusing our freedom, not through legalism but through license, by exercising a lack of restraint or control, or acting permissibly.

Some people think that after they receive the gospel, they are free to determine their own standards. Now I can live anyway I want! But Paul tells us not to use our freedom to indulge our sinful nature, which resides inside of us. Gospel freedom is meant to lead us to obey God, not to simply please ourselves for the rest of our days.

The Christian is freed from the law, the Ten Commandments for instance, as a way to win merit from God. But, we are not freed from obedience as to way to gratefully please God. The Law is an expression of God’s nature and heart, and it pleases Him when His people follow them.

What better way to bring God pleasure than to delight in His will and walk in His ways! The gospel frees you to live anyway you want, but if you truly understand who Jesus is and what He has done for you at the cross, then you will be asking how you can live for Him. And the answer will be to look at the will of God expressed in those Commandments. The gospel frees us from the law. We are motivated to obey out of our love for what Christ has done for us.

A good illustration is to ask the question, Why does a child obey his parents? Some children obey out of a sense of fear of punishment. Some obey out of a sense of duty. It’s one of the demands of being taken care, of being watched over, looked over. Others obey for the reward. They are trying to earn their parents’ love and some favors along the way. Still others might say, Example. I see other children obeying their parents, so I know I should likewise obey mine.

Finally, we obey out of love. LOVE. We want to please those who have done so much for us. Likewise, for the saved sons and daughters of God who have tasted His grace. We obey out of love for the One who has done so much for us.

A story from the Civil War days before America slaves were freed tells about a Northerner who went to a slave auction and purchased a young slave girl. As they walked away from the auction, the man turned to the girl and said, “You are free!”
With amazement she responded, “You mean, I’m free to do whatever I want?”
“Yes,” he said.
“And to say whatever I want to say?”
“Yes. Anything.”
“And to be whatever I want to be?”
“And even go wherever I want to go?”
“Yes,” he answered with a smile. “You’re free to go wherever you’d like.”
She looked at him intently and replied, “Then I’m going to go with you. I will go with you.”

So it is for the Christian who has been set free by the gospel of Jesus Christ. We want to go with Him. He is the life giver.

So, if true Christian liberty and freedom expresses itself in faith, loving service of our neighbor, and obedience to God, then how are these things possible in our lives? The answer is, by the Holy Spirit whom God has given us. He alone can keep us truly free.

Paul then spends the rest of chapter 5 telling us the best way to live is by the Holy Spirit – be guided by the Spirit, march in line with the Spirit. Our sinful desires still reside in us as humans. Paul refers to them as the flesh. When the Spirit moves into our lives, a battle takes place within us between the old and the new self, and it’s quite a conflict.

Carl Sandberg once wrote, “There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud.” The old nature is a garbage dump of negatives that shows itself in various sinful activities, behaviors, and realms, such as sex, religion, society, drinking, partying, and so on. Paul warns us that those who get caught up in those kind of things will not inherit the kingdom of God. Left to ourselves, we could not do what we would want. We would succumb to the desires of our old nature.

But the good news is we are not left to ourselves. We have the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the living Christ to help us. Paul tells us to live by the Spirit, be guided by the Spirit, march to the Spirit, and amazing growth will take place in you. This growth is referred to as the fruit of the Spirit.

After the Spirit helps you see Christ for who He is and what He has done for you, then He wants to grow in you some wonderful qualities: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, generosity, and self-control. All these character attributes reflect the character of Jesus Christ Himself. How can the Spirit work that in us? By committing ourselves to participating in the community of faith, by yielding ourselves in prayer to the Spirit’s care and direction, by committing to being worshipers, by being fed by the Word, and by partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Finally, as we read and study our scripture on a daily basis, the Holy Spirit works within us the fruit of the Spirit as we interact with God in those means of grace. If you have placed your trust in Jesus Christ, the message today is, YOU ARE FREE! Stand firm in that freedom. Rely on it and be guided by the Holy Spirit whom God has given you. Enjoy your freedom.