In 1968, the great German Theologian Ernst Kasemann wrote a book called “Jesus Means Freedom”. It’s a fantastic little book that I really recommend and he begins it with a story, and this is what he says:
“I was told the following story in Amsterdam after the severe storms and floods from which Holland suffered in 1952. The scene was one of those parishes where people felt themselves strictly bound to obey God’s commandments, and therefore to keep the Sabbath holy. The place was so threatened by wind and waves that the dyke had to be strengthened one Sunday if the inhabitants were to survive. The police notified the pastor, who now found himself in a religious difficulty. Should he call out the people of the parish that had been entrusted to him, and set them to do the necessary work, if it meant profaning the Sabbath? Should he, on the contrary, abandon them to destruction in order to honor the Sabbath? He found the burden of making a personal decision too much for him, and he summoned the church council to consult and decide. The discussion went as one might suppose: We live to carry out God’s will. God, being omnipotent, can always perform a miracle with the wind and waves. Our duty is obedience, whether in life or in death. The pastor tried one last argument, perhaps against his own conviction: Did not Jesus himself, on occasion, break the fourth commandment and declare that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath? Thereupon a venerable old man stood up: “I have always been troubled, Pastor, by something that I have never yet ventured to say publicly. Now I must say it. I have always had the feeling that our Lord Jesus was just a bit of a liberal.”
Now you’re all going to have to forgive me for dropping a hard “L” on you from the pulpit this morning—“liberal”—but of course when Kasemann uses the “L” word, when he talks about Jesus being a liberal, he isn’t talking about politics, he’s talking about liberty. He’s talking about Jesus being liberal with his offering of love and mercy, of favor and forgiveness. He’s talking about Jesus being a fan of freedom, and I think we see this today in our reading.
Today’s Gospel reading is a sort of manifesto on preaching and proclaiming the Gospel. It shows us what the Gospel is and is not, what to do and what not to do when thrust behind a pulpit, or simply faced with the question, “what in the world is Christianity all about?”
Elsewhere in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus stands up to preach in synagogues, but only here, in our reading today, are we given a report of what he actually says. And right out of the gates, in his very first sermon, his inaugural address, Jesus tells us who we are and who he is—what our condition is, and what he is here to do.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release/freedom/liberty to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
He tells us that we aren’t free, that we’re captive, blind and oppressed. That we could use some good news and that he’s the one who’s brought it. He speaks directly to you, not to anyone else, but right at you. Of course, the question then is, what is holding you captive? What do you need freedom from? Is it your fear of the future or your anxiety of the past? Is it something you’ve done or can’t bring yourself to do? Does someone else hold the keys to your freedom, or perhaps it’s someone’s absence that has you confined to a space of hopelessness.
Can’t find a job, can’t find a cure, can’t find someone to love, someone to hold and to hear you cry. Can’t breathe, can’t sleep, can’t make her smile, can’t make him forgive you. Whether it’s pain or guilt or fear, there is something inside us all that we need liberation from.
Whether you’re young or old, the fear of loneliness runs deep. I think that this fear is beneath, or a great symptom of just about everything else that we want deliverance from. The question of finding companionship—either friendly or romantic—is not new, and a desire for belonging and the fear that we’re unlovable seems ironically to be one of the great ties that bind us.
The comedian and late night TV host Conan O’Brien just came out with a new podcast at the end of last year, and in the introduction to his first show he says this:
Hey, this is Conan O’Brien, and uh, this my new podcast—Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend. Let me explain. I’ve been doing a TV show for 25 years, I’ve done over 4,000 episodes with celebrity guests, you would think I have friends, but I don’t. I’m actually being kind of honest. All of my friends are people that work for me. Celebrities come on the show, they pretend to be really nice to me, but when the show’s over, they get in a black SUV, and they leave.
Now whether you believe his sincerity or not, I have a feeling that his words strike a chord with each and every one of you. On this show he sits down with celebrities and talks to them about their lives, and then he basically asks them if they will be his friend. For the second episode, he interviewed the actress Kristen Bell:
Conan: “I work pretty hard, I have a busy life…I have a wife, I have kids, so what happens is I, I realize, where are my pals that I hang out with? Where’s my gang? Where’s my posse?”
Kristen: “Conan, you’ve got to carve out time for that, [you can find a way to solve this on your own if you care for yourself and make the time]”
Conan: (responds with an incredible mixture of humor and vulnerability) Yeah, but then, I also need people that are willing to do it, [to be my friend]”
As Conan points out, we can’t free ourselves. We can’t make someone love us. We can’t earn the grace and patience and mercy from a beloved friend that we crave—it must be given to us freely. And this is what Jesus does. Jesus proclaims freedom from sin and death and hell. Freedom from judgment, shame and guilt. Freedom from having to earn God’s love. Freedom from ever being alone.
When Jesus stands up to preach, he reads from the Book of Isaiah 61: 1-2. But when he reads this, he leaves out the part of Isaiah when the prophet says that the Messiah will be sent “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And the day of vengeance of our God”. When Jesus stands up to preach to you and to me, he doesn’t mention the wrath and vengeance of God, and not because he’s soft, or isn’t interested in justice. He doesn’t proclaim the coming of vengeance to us because he knows that it’s coming to him. He knows that the year of the Lord’s favor has come to us, because upon that Cross, the day of vengeance of our God will fall upon him rather than us. All that we fear, all that we deserve, all of the things that keep us up at night and roll around in our chest waiting to combust, all of that will fall upon him as it falls off of us. We can’t free ourselves, but as Ernst Kasemann says, Jesus means freedom.
Susan Eastman told me a story a couple of years ago about before she began her career as a seminary professor, when she was hired to serve as the priest in charge of a parish in a small fishing town in Alaska. Before she began her time with the church, the outgoing minister asked her to meet for coffee to help out with the transition. They told Susan that this was a small town, but that the people had a lot going on. Life was difficult up there and the people of this community struggled with a lot of economic and personal problems. And so, clearly sizing her up, they asked Susan what she was going to preach to them—what was she going to say to these people to tell them how they could live better lives in the midst of so much difficulty? What was she going to tell them to do? And so Susan took a sip from her cup of coffee, sat back, and simply said, “Nothing…I’m not planning to tell them to do anything. Jesus has already done everything, so I’m going to tell them about Jesus.”
Jesus has truly set you free. Free from guilt and shame, sin and death. Free from having to appease God and atone for you sins. Free from having to try and make yourself loveable, because Jesus has already bought your ticket and called you his beloved. This is a gift that God has given you and there is nothing that can ever take that away from you.