Sunday, March 20, 2005

Freedom Comes Our Way

Matthew 21:1-11
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, March 20, 2005)

An efficiency expert spoke to a group of managers and was well received. “Whatever you do though,” he said near the end of his presentation, “don’t try this at home.” “Why not?” somebody asked.

He explained, “I used to watch my wife prepare breakfast in the morning and wondered why she took so many trips to the table, carrying just one item. One day I asked her, ‘Wouldn’t it be quicker and more efficient if you organized yourself to carry several things to the table at once?’” One of the managers asked the expert, “Did it work?”

“Yes,” he said. “It worked. It used to take my wife twenty minutes to prepare breakfast. Now I do it in seven.”

The point is that you and I may sometimes observe others living their lives and figure we could live them a lot better. It seems that we’re all experts at living other people’s lives. When Jesus lived His earthly life, people even thought they knew better how to be Savior of the world than He did!

Our Bible lesson for today is one of four accounts found in the New Testament telling us about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just before the last Passover holiday He spent on earth. We call this Palm Sunday, although only one of the four accounts, the one in the Gospel of John, mentions palms.

In our lesson today, we’re told that as Jesus entered Jerusalem, crowds welcomed Him with shouts of, Hosanna!, which means, God save us!

They also took off their outer garments and broke branches off of nearby trees, strewing both in Jesus’ path as He came into town. This was reminiscent of the welcome given to two ancient kings of Israel just before their coronations: King Solomon, the wisest person who ever lived, and King Jehu. (There really was a Jehu! And to think that all these years you only thought it was the nickname of the fellow who cut you off in traffic.)

The crowds who greeted Jesus saw Him as a conquering hero. They were people like the crowds we’ve recently seen pouring onto the streets of places like Kiev in Ukraine, Beirut in Lebanon, and elsewhere. Jesus’ fellow Judeans were an imprisoned people, their land occupied by the Roman Empire. They wanted what these modern demonstrators have wanted: They wanted freedom.

It is true that Jesus has come to set us free. “If you continue in my truth,” Jesus once said, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” Jesus sets all who follow Him free from sin and death and futility.

But the crowds who welcomed Jesus on that first Palm Sunday—like, I fear, many among the crowds in places like Beirut and Kiev today—weren’t looking for Jesus’ brand of freedom.

They wanted the freedom of the ballot box, the freedom of the pocket book. Those sorts of freedoms are wonderful; but they end at the grave. They become meaningless when you and I breathe our last and take our first steps into eternity.

The freedom Jesus offers is bigger than those vaulted freedoms and vastly more important. Jesus gives us the freedom to become our best selves. Jesus offers us the freedom to live like human beings were meant to live, forever. And beginning the moment we turn from sin and follow Him, Jesus gives us the freedom to live with purpose and meaning.

I believe that we all hunger for that kind of freedom! I know that I do and even though I also know that Jesus gives it, I find it so easy to fall into enslavement to the world's ways of doing and seeing things. That's why I keep needing to be reminded and keep needing to experience the freedom Jesus brings over and over again.

In anticipation of our upcoming Forty Days of Purpose, I've been re-reading the Rick Warren book, The Purpose Driven Life. Something struck me as I read chapter nine again this past week. It came at a place where, sounding like Martin Luther when he wrote about the priesthood of all believers, Warren noted that anything that you and I may do in life, other than sin, can glorify God.

Through Christ, we're set free to express everything about our God-given personalities---whether it's playing guitar barefooted or wearing a suit and tie to eat at McDonald's. In fact, Warren says (and I think rightly) that when we fail to give expression to our God-given personalities, we're really showing contempt for the God Who went to a cross in order to set us free!

I have been a people-pleaser my whole life. Maybe that comes from being an oldest child. Whatever the reason, the upshot has always been that in order to please others, I have masked elements of my personality. What I'm beginning to learn is that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died and rose for me so that I am free, in my own unique, God-designed ways, to praise and honor God with my whole life! The same is true for you. Isn't that an awesome thought?

Like many of you, I was interested this past week to read about the encounter between Ashley Smith and Brian Nichols. For seven hours, Smith was held hostage by Nichols, the man accused of rape who flew into a rage in an Atlanta courtroom and killed at least three people before escaping and setting off a desperate manhunt. I’ve been astounded to read about how Smith handled being held hostage.

Her calm demeanor pacified Nichols. He put his guns under Smith's bed and listened as Smith spoke to him about her desire to live in order to raise her young daughter. Later, she prepared breakfast for her hostage-taker and she read from the Bible to him.

She also read and re-read sections from a chapter of The Purpose Driven Life that begins with this simple insight, "We serve God by serving others."

Somehow, Brian Nichols was touched by those words and told Smith that he too, wanted to be a servant of God.

Because of her demeanor and the sharing of herself and her faith, Ashley Smith led police to her captor.

My guess is that Brian Nichols was relieved to be taken into custody. He probably will lose his earthly life now, but he may well use what life he has left serving the God Who went to a cross in order to serve us all.

Wonder of wonders, Brian Nichols might do with the rest of his life on this earth what so very few of us ever do: Experience the freedom of living our lives according to God's purposes, according to the specifications of the One Who made us and wants to liberate us to be our best selves.

The incredible thing about the God we know through Jesus Christ is that even people behind bars or sitting on Death Row can live in that freedom.

Within days of welcoming Jesus as their king, the crowds in Jerusalem screamed themselves hoarse, begging for His death.

They didn’t want the freedom that Jesus offered.

They didn’t want to live life God’s way.

They wanted Jesus dead.

I’ve often wondered how these people felt in the days and years following the events of that first Palm Sunday.

Only about five hundred people, people who had believed in Jesus as God and Savior before His death, saw Him after He rose again. The vast majority of the Jerusalem crowds didn’t know about Jesus' resurrection and would have simply assumed that He was dead and gone forever. They probably went on with their lives as though nothing had happened.

Their lives proceeded as they looked for freedom by all the means people usually use to seek it: money, power, political liberation, sex, possessions, or status. But in all their seeking, they never would have found freedom. How hollow their lives appear after coming so close to the forever freedom that Jesus offers and then, refusing to experience it!

The crowds who welcomed Jesus on the first Palm Sunday thought they knew best how Jesus should go about being Savior of the world. But Jesus knew that He could be successful at driving out the Romans, reigning over a powerful kingdom, and providing people with all kinds of luxuries and still not fulfill His purpose in life.

Jesus knew that to set us free to be all that God made us to be, He would have to suffer for us, die for us, and then rise for us.

Only through His death could Jesus set us free from the punishment we deserve for sin.

Only through His resurrection could He set us free to fulfill our highest purposes!

Forty Days of Purpose at Friendship will begin on April 10. Through daily readings of The Purpose Driven Life, along with small groups, some special events, and worship celebrations in which our focus will be living life according to God’s five major purposes for our lives, we and the folks from our community who choose to join us on this journey, will be helped in knowing God better and encouraged to living our lives in the freedom God has in mind for us.

In spite of his being a murderer, God cared enough about Brian Nichols that he sent him into Ashley Smith’s apartment last week.

God wants all of us to experience the freedom of being His child at deeper and deeper levels throughout our lives. It’s for this that God is sending Forty Days of Purpose to all of us and to our community right now.

Don’t miss out on it!

[The story about the efficiency expert comes from a recent article by Pastor Steve Goodier. To subscribe to Steve's outstanding emailed inspirations and to find out about his books, go to his web site: Life Support System.]

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