Today's reflection on the Daily Texts:
I kept my faith, even when I said, "I am greatly afflicted." - Psalm 116:10
If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed. - John 8:36
Two-year reading texts: Psalm 147:1-6; 2 Kings 21:1-22:10; Acts 7:17-29
These are unusual scriptures for Christmas Eve! But they get me thinking about what it means that Jesus was born for us. Freedom is certainly one answer. "Free from bondage to sin and death" is a familiar way to talk about Christian life. When we think about Jesus as God's light coming into the world, we can say that the light sets us free from the problem of walking around in the darkness, getting lost or banging into things. Today's scriptures, though, show freedom in a unique way, somewhat different from the way we usually mean it in America.
The American ideal of freedom is mostly about "freedom from." Our national personality loves the idea of the rugged individual unfettered by any chains, a lone cowboy out on the open range. Our Bill of Rights is a list of areas of life in which we're free from government restriction. We don't like anything that limits or binds us.
Christian freedom obviously has this "freedom from" dimension too. In Christ, not only are we free from sin and death, but from the power of evil, and from the ability of all kinds of suffering to harm who we truly are as children of God. In John 8, Jesus is talking about "freedom from" worry about our status with God. In him, with our bondage to sin broken, we can be assured that we have "a permanent place in the household" alongside Jesus, the Son, forever.
But this is one example of how, when we start to take a closer look at Christian freedom, other dimensions quickly become obvious too. Christian freedom means that we are free in Christ, in a constant relationship with him. Being "in the household" of God connects us with all the other family members in the household. We are creatures made in God's image, which includes relationship (since God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thus relationship is part of who God is, not just some additional thing God does). To be set free to be the people we were created to be is to have our natural bonds of relationship with God and all creation be strong, pure, unbroken, and uncomplicated. Christians are never lone cowboys, but members of a body, a family.
Because these bonds are part of our very being, just as they're part of God's being, they are not limits, but expressions of who we most truly and fully are. Our freedom is not compromised, but enhanced, by being intimately connected with God and all creation.
One example I saw this morning was with our little dog, Reggie. He was free to go wherever he felt like and do whatever he wanted. But as he often does at prayer time, he was plastered right up against my right thigh. He used his freedom to do something he loves, namely hanging out close to his people.
In the same room where I was reading and praying, we also have a little nativity piece that's one of my favorites (despite my pet peeve about overly modern-Caucasian images of Jesus and other people from the Bible). It looks as if it's carved from rough wood, with Jesus and Mary and Joseph all bodily connected. Different, unique, but from the same substance. Mary holds Jesus, and Joseph holds Mary, and Jesus holds everybody's focus. It's not a bad picture of Christian freedom, everybody set free and at the same time everybody connected.
This brings up the other dimension of freedom. In addition to "freedom from," we also have "freedom for." There are things we are created for, which we don't have the ability to do while we're in bondage to anything other than God. Sin, death, evil, selfishness, brokenness - all take away from our "freedom for" things like love, compassion, seeing others fully as people created in God's image, being known ourselves as who we really are in the same way. There is a way of life for which we are created, a way that lets us joyfully and powerfully be all that we can be, and gives us ways to foster the same kind of life for others. I love the Hebrew word shalom, deep and abiding peace and harmony, to hint at this way of life. Other words like steadfast love, justice, righteousness, mercy, and grace point to different dimensions of the same way of life. This is what we are "free for" in Christ. And the Bible's strong language about family and unity show how this freedom includes a dimension of being bound up together with others.
For me, that's the Christmas Eve message of the day. In a world badly broken, torn by violence, darkened by evil, rotten with sin that wants to turn in on itself and shut out the rest of the world, God sends Jesus as a helpless child, born to ordinary confused parents, announced to disrespected shepherds, raised in humble circumstances, gentle in spirit, strong in love. The world's worst will assault this child, and will appear to have won. But Jesus will take it and transform it all - for us. In Christ, we are free indeed, and bound indeed to God and to each other and to the world.