The Prisons in Our Lives

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted: he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;         Isaiah 61:1

Oswald Hoffman, speaker for the Lutheran Hour, tells of a story coming out of the Philippines, the story of a man, a communist, who had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for subversive activities.  He was hard and bitter.  But someone gave him a copy of the Scriptures with one passage marked:  (in that translation) “Come to me, all of you who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.”

That one little Word from God gave new life to this man.  His bitterness disappeared.  His selfish regard only for himself turned into a new association with his fellow prisoners.  He began to talk to other people in prison and many became Christians through his witness.  Finally, the government released him 4 years before the end of his sentence.  After his release, this man had brought the Good News, which he himself received through the witness of the Scriptures, to thousands of prisoners in the Philippines.

One pastor in the inner city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had a most interesting associate.  What was so notable was that this associate was once an enforcer for organized crime.  He was like what you see on TV, one who went after others to get them to pay their debts to the mob.  He once held a gun barrel in a person’s mouth, and casually saw this as merely part of the job.

The man was out of organized crime and now worked the streets with this pastor, particularly aiming for the youth, conducting Bible Studies, and challenging them to new life in Christ.  Where he once threatened death, he now shared life, a deep life, an abundant life.

The other day, I was talking with a person who had a past to deal with.  And although the person had come to really know the forgiveness that Jesus brings, still that past stood there as a stern reminder of errors and mistakes, a burden which weighed heavily.  What a joy it was to share the full meaning of Baptism, where God can step into our existence, to thoroughly forgive, to give us the chance to start truly fresh and new right now, to have no carry-overs from the past to intrude into our present.  Jesus has given us the ability and the RIGHT to literally ignore the past, to truly be spotlessly clean and brand-spanking new-born as we face the face the world this day, and tomorrow, and the future.

Today’s text revolves around the proclamation of freedom, and as Jesus said, If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.  In the above accounts, each person was held in a prison more confining than that of stone and steel.  It was a prison of sin, whether it created a warped eye view of the world, or it condemned because of sins and errors of the past.  Other prisons can be fears, hatreds, jealousies, addictions, habits (such as habits of fighting or  carelessness) – the list could go on and on.

The prisons are more than just in our individual lives.  The way we think of the congregation can speak of a prison in our mind; as well as the way we think of this community and of the nation, the concern of whether there is any hope for what will happen around us, can speak of a mental prison whose doors can be as tightly shut as the steel-clad doors of any jail.

Perhaps the most frightening thing of this is that as you look closely at our lives, our day-to-day existence, the decisions and the actions that we do every single day, there are things which can make us feel helpless and hopeless.  That description in itself might one of the best definitions of a prison.  These are things that run our lives, that run our feelings, that run our consciences, that run our thoughts; things that seem to be out of our control, yet exert their power over us.  This is slavery – this is a prison and we are the ones who are chained up.

Therefore it is very important that we listen especially to Isaiah and his signpost of prophecy to us.  He has a big arrow that points to the Messiah – but not just to identify this coming Christ, but also to describe what He will do and what it means.

Jesus will come to set people free, Isaiah declares.  How we marvel when we hear of the convict in the Philippines, or the former enforcer in Pittsburgh.  But can you really believe that Jesus can do the same for you?  Have you really come to terms with the fact that that Baby in the Manger is also Mighty God, the Everlasting Father?

This is hard for us.  It requires us to make our faith vulnerable – it stands naked in that it can’t hide behind any protection.  It requires our faith to actually expect God to do something, to be something in our lives.  And that’s hard.  It’s nice to put God in on a safe shelf somewhere in our minds.  But to think – to expect – that He can really do something about those things that have such a grip on us, that hold us in prison – well, the threat on our faith can get us downright scared of what will happen, whether our lives will be turned upside down, whether it will cost us something we ultimately are reluctant to give up, whether we will be left with only shreds of our worlds.

But the question must come – CAN Jesus do anything?  WOULD He do anything for me, and you?  WILL He do anything?
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That’s why it is such a good thing that we are fast approaching Christmas!  What a wonderful way for God to demonstrate powerfully and visibly that YES! He can and He will.  Look again at that Baby in the Manger!  Just think about WHO He is!  Think about what it took for Him to get even to this point!

He is God, Who was so powerfully yearning for us to be in His heaven, that He threw off everything He had, everything He owned, everything He was.  He stands before us naked of all His powers and all His rights, and made Himself smaller and smaller and smaller, not even stopping at becoming a man, but all the way to becoming a helpless, vulnerable infant.  Does this, even by itself, describe a God Who will short change us?  A God that will run out on us at the earliest sign of trouble, to make us face it all alone?  Would this describe a God insensitive to the problems and the hopelessnesses which daily afflict our life?

Instead what we see is a God Who is totally involved, Who was willing to miss nothing of the daily nitty-gritty of life, Who submitted Himself to the hardships and the disappointments.  And then watch, as He goes about touching people, healing them, straightening out their bodies.  But more, as He touched their lives, pronouncing forgiveness and hope and life.

Do not underestimate that forgiveness of Jesus.  As surely as the death on the cross was real, when all nature heaved up in horror at the cost; and then the resurrection, which shredded the power of death, so Christ can come with an amazing power to totally, completely, eternally remove sin – not just the penalty, but the sin itself.

Jesus has come, not to destroy us, but to destroy our prison.  And He has!  The doors have come off their hinges, the chains lay at our feet.  We DO have the ability to cast off our prisons!  Yet how strange it is that some people still hold their hands as if still connected to the chains, and act as if the doors were still tightly locked against them!

That’s why we need the Holy Spirit, because only He can coax us out of our little cells, by showing us again and again the Word of God, the Good News, the power and the life that Jesus has given to us.  Only the Holy Spirit can make us realize that we have something brand new and fresh and clean waiting for us every single day.  Only the Holy Spirit can waken our Spirits to see the wonder of God’s power actually dwelling in us.

This is where Baptism has such a wonderful message for us.  Here is the affirmation, and the culmination of all that God was working toward throughout Biblical history.  Here God takes all the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all the healing power, all the Good News and focuses it down to this point, this event, to each one of us.  The vastness of God’s mercy, His grace, His forgiveness, His life, His partnership in life – all of this powerhouse is now plugged into your spiritual life, into my spiritual life.

The Holy Spirit has come to live and to stay – this is extraordinary!  In Christmas, we celebrate how God came to share our lives, living among us at our level.  Baptism has simply continued the story, continued the message, continued the amazing love that God has for us, because now it’s the Holy Spirit Who is also sharing our lives, living IN us at our level.  To stop and realize the enormous event that this is and how God has no intention of ever backing away from this relationship – there is extraordinary freedom to be found right here!

And this is simply further confirmed by the fact that Jesus also has made the effort to be here as well – as He always does, never begrudging this time together, never reluctant to have to make yet another trip to this congregation.  He’s here already, and is just waiting for HIS moment, when He can share Himself once again with you and me in Holy Communion.  Here we get to see in as firm a way possible that indeed nothing has separated us from His love and presence,

This is GOD’s attitude toward you – what Good News!!  What a freedom is to be found in all that is happening during this time with God.  We have a taste of the very Glory of God, we are brought face-to-face with the grace, the mercy, the steadfast love, the faithfulness and the forgiveness of God.

Therefore as we approach the manger this Christmas, we do have a powerful lot of freedoms to rejoice in – but more than merely rejoice in, to also find their applications as we go about our lives.  Look at all the places where the Good News of forgiveness and of God’s presence do not leave tatters of our lives, but instead open the door to such life and joy that we find ourselves in the midst of freedom and of the ability to touch other lives as Jesus did ours.

During this Advent, let us lay our prisons and chains at the feet of the Master Who has broken them all and in return has given us a tremendous richness of His life and power.  Let us ask especially that the Holy Spirit work powerfully in us that we may discover the depth of what Jesus has given us in the freedom to live a full and rich life with the God Who has so dearly loved us

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