“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them … We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness … We, therefore … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world … do … declare, that these United Colonies are Free and Independent States … And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
In this document, the Founding Fathers of this great nation declared our independence from the rule of England and our dependence upon God to maintain that political independence, that freedom. The question I want to ask this morning is, “Are we really free?” We are certainly politically free, we are independent, but are we really free? The First Amendment of the US Constitution states, among other things, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the government will neither establish an official religion for this country, nor will it inhibit the right of its citizens to practice their religion. The government will keep its hands off your right and mine to live out our faith. But are we really free? We are certainly politically free, but are we really free? What has the religious freedom guaranteed us done for us?
Back in 2008, a Harris Poll determined that while 80% of Americans still believed in God, and 71% believed Jesus is the son of God, only 27% attended church weekly, while another 36% said they attended church once a year, and a whopping 54% of Americans had abandoned their religious upbringing. At the same time, 89% of all pornographic web sites originate in the United States, and a new pornographic movie is made every 39 minutes. And a recent study by the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School says that America may be the saddest nation in the world, with almost 10% of Americans suffering from depression. We may be politically free, “independent” of the rule of another country, but we are still in bondage. How do we experience not just political freedom, independence, but real freedom, true freedom? Freedom from fear, anxiety, the sin that seeks to keep us in bondage, even as we enjoy the greatest political freedom ever enjoyed by humanity?
Mark’s Gospel records Jesus as he faced the darkest hour in history. He has just eaten the last supper with his disciples in the upper room, and they are on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus will pray before he is betrayed and handed over to the religious authorities, who have been looking for an opportunity to arrest him. And as he prays, Jesus prays using the same model for prayer that he taught the disciples when they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11:1). They knew how to pray. Jews prayed all the time. But they wanted to learn how to pray like Jesus prayed. And so he taught them, giving them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. In his darkest hour, as he knelt and then fell prostrate before God in agonized prayer, he used the same prayer. Turn in your Bibles to Mark 14:27-40.
When I first started out in ministry I was a youth pastor, and part of my job was to lead the confirmation program at the church where I worked. Students were paired up with mentors to walk through the 9 month program with them, and then I taught a monthly session. The first topic was simply “God.” We dug into people’s views of who God is and what God is like. We looked first at how God is viewed in popular culture. Einstein saw God as a “pure mathematical mind.” When many people think of God, they think about goodness and light. Others see God as a cosmic killjoy or an angry policeman, trying to stamp all of the fun out of life. Still others see God as a tired old man or an unapproving father figure. Those conceptions of God, those mental images that we relate to, tend to come from our past experiences in life, most likely early on in life. Often from our own fathers. If you had an absentee father, chances are your conception of God will be of an uninvolved divine force. If your father was very perfectionistic and demanding, chances are your conception of God will fall right into line with that. That’s why we have to allow Jesus to reveal who God is to us. And when Jesus prayed, he called God, “Abba.” It’s an Aramaic word that means something along the lines of papa, or daddy. It’s a term of endearment and intimacy. When he taught us to pray, he taught us to use the same term. “Our Father …” Our Abba. God is not a cosmic policeman hunting us down and forcing us to submit or a vague force of goodness and beauty. God is our “Abba,” our loving father, our heavenly “daddy.”
Only the intimate can use a term like that. What do you call me? If you call me Pastor Jeff, You know what I do, you’ve heard me speak, and you are probably familiar with some of my favorite topics and my up-front personality, but you don’t necessarily know me personally. You might. For some, it’s a term of respect. Others just call me “Jeff.” If you do, I’d assume that you know me even better. My friends call me Jeff. That’s how I prefer to be known pretty much everywhere. But only five people will ever get to call me “Daddy.” What do you call God? Your answer may be a clue to how well you know him, or don’t. I want you to try something today. I want you to set aside just a few minutes to pray, and when you pray, I want you to start the prayer with the word “Papa,” and see how that changes your orientation toward God. And know that this is exactly how Jesus taught you to pray. The path to real freedom begins with intimacy with God. And the only thing standing in your way is your own mental projection of what God is like.
Now, look at V. 36. He leaves Andrew and Philip and Bartholomew and Matthew and Thomas and the other James, and Thaddaeus and Simon, and takes Peter, James, and John on further with him. Why did he single those three out? Well, for starters, they were his inner circle. He spent more time with his 12 disciples than with the others who followed him, and he spent more time with these three than with the others who were a part of the 12. He tells them to sit and watch while he prays. But there’s something more going on here. You see, all three of them had declared that they had what it takes to stick by Jesus, no matter what. In Mark 10:39, James and John had proudly proclaimed, “we can drink the same cup you will drink.” And Peter had just declared that even if the other eleven, including James and John, fell away, he wouldn’t. They declare their own strength and resolve, and wind up losing courage and fleeing. Jesus, by contrast, acknowledges not his own strength and ability but the great ability of his father in heaven. He didn’t say, “all things are possible for me.” He said, “All things are possible for you.” You can do what you want here God. You are capable of doing anything with anything.
When he taught us to pray, Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” To pray “hallowed be your name” is to acknowledge your dependence upon God, for his name and his name alone is holy, set apart, hallowed. The second step on the path to true freedom is to acknowledge the greatness of God and place your trust in him, not in your own strength. Doesn’t mean there isn’t something for you to do as a follower of Jesus. In Philippians 2, St. Paul directs us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Vv. 12-13). You work, because God is working in you. The reality is that when we are struggling, it is usually our emotions that we are struggling with. Our mind knows what we need to do. But our emotions don’t want to follow, to obey, and our wills are not strong enough to override our emotions. So instead of enjoying real freedom through intimacy with God and trust in his strength, we try to muddle through ourselves and wind up living in bondage.
Take prayer, for instance, because that is what Jesus is telling us to do here. Watch and pray. Most Christians I know struggle with prayer. In most churches, if you want people to stay away from a program, put the word prayer in the title. Only the spiritual people will show up. Because prayer seems so inactive, so boring, to us. We don’t pray like Jesus tells us to pray because we don’t WANT to pray. We know we are supposed to be a people of prayer. That’s our mind. But until our wills can overcome our emotions, we won’t pray. Our emotions rule. We must become a people disciplined to pray. Five mornings a week I get up and work out. Why? Because I want to be healthy, and I need to keep “pastor’s paunch” at bay. My doctor actually called it that. He’s glad I don’t tend to have it. But being a pastor means lots of sitting, driving, visiting, and studying. So I exercise. Hard. And my will to be healthy overrules my emotions in the moment. Exercise is, for the most part, not fun in the moment. Some forms of “being active” can be. But hard exercise is just that, hard. It’s good for you, but it’s hard. I’d much rather be eating a donut and reading the newspaper, or lying in bed, but I exercise? Why? Because my will to be physically healthy overrides my emotional desire to be comfortable. What would happen if the same were true of my spiritual health? What if my desire to be spiritually healthy overruled my emotional desire to be comfortable and I began to pray like Jesus wants to pray? My life would be transformed.
Jimmy, and his son, Davey, were playing in the ocean down in Mexico, while his family were on the beach. Suddenly, a rogue riptide swept Davey out to the sea. Immediately Jimmy started to do whatever he could to help Davey get back to the shore, but he, too, was soon swept away in the tide. He knew that in a few minutes, both he and Davey would drown. He tried to scream, but his family couldn’t hear him. Jimmy’s a strong guy—an Olympic Decathlete—but he was powerless in this situation. His cousin, who understood something about the ocean, saw what was happening. He walked out into the water where he knew there was a sandbar. He had learned that if you try to fight a riptide, you will die. So, he walked to the sandbar, stood as close as he could get to Jimmy and Davey, and then he just lifted his hand up and said, “You come to me. You come to me.” If you try to do things your way, you will fail. God says, “If you come to me, you will stand.”
Now, look at V. 36 one last time. In this moment, the human Jesus gazed into the cup that was coming, a cup full of sin and of wrath, saw your sins and mine placed on him, and stared at separation from God and the gates of hell, and he staggered. In fact, the phrase “began to be greatly distressed and troubled” literally means “scared to the point of death.” To take upon himself the wrath of God upon sin, instead of allowing us to experience it. Simply thinking about what was coming nearly killed Jesus. And yet, because of his intimacy with and trust in God, he was able to pray, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” I want another way. If there’s any other way. But if I have to drink this cup, I’ll drink it. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The prayer that Jesus taught us to pray, was the prayer that Jesus himself prayed in his darkest hour. May your will be done, right here, right now, in this garden as I pray, as it is in heaven. You see, the privilege of being a disciple, of being close to Jesus leads to the responsibility of being a disciple, of being faithful in tough times. Jesus has a firm resolve to submit to God’s will. This is the great paradox of freedom in Christ, of true freedom: the path to freedom is the path of surrender. And to surrender to the will of another, to the will of God, no matter what that might be, runs against every ounce of self-preservation and self-will that I contain. To lay aside my own desires, even to death, that the will of God may be done.
Why are we still living in bondage, without true freedom, in the midst of the greatest religious and political freedom the world has ever known? Because we’ve become admirers of Jesus, rather than followers. Danish philosopher and theologian Soren Kierkegaard said, “If you have any knowledge at all of human nature, you know that those who only admire the truth will, when danger appears, become traitors. The admirer is infatuated with the false security of greatness; but if there is any inconvenience or trouble, he pulls back. Christ, however, never asked for admirers, worshipers, or adherents. He consistently spoke of “followers” and “disciples.” And as followers of Jesus we will each experience our own Gethsemane, or as the Psalmist called it, the valley of the shadow of death. We will each come to the place where our wills must win over our emotions, where we must steel our hearts and follow where Jesus leads. He warned his disciples, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours” (John 15:20). If they hated me, why wouldn’t they hate you, who follow me? This isn’t an excuse to be a jerk, online or in person, to argue just for the sake of arguing. It’s a promise that those who follow Jesus will experience trouble in this world. But those same people will also experience freedom, not just political or religious freedom, but true freedom. Freedom in Christ. Freedom to follow him wherever he leads, knowing that our lives on this earth and our eternal destinies are safely in his hands. And so we can live. Really live. To follow Jesus is to live in ever growing freedom in Christ. Freedom from bondage. Freedom from fear, even the fear of death. You can live in political and religious freedom and still be in bondage, and you can live in bondage and be free in Christ. Freedom in Christ comes as we experience intimacy with our Abba, our heavenly father, our heavenly papa, acknowledge God’s great ability rather than our own, and submit to God’s will. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So this Independence Day, as we celebrate our political and religious freedom, may we also celebrate our freedom in Christ. Freedom to be the people he created us to be. Freedom to live, to really live. To live lives that matter now, and throughout eternity.