There are people lying in chains, lost and without hope.
There are people behind bars, forlorn and weeping, yearning to be free but unable to break the bonds that hold them captive. They cry out for release.
In this world of ours there are untold people whose lives are not so much lived as endured, not so much enjoyed as struggled through, people for whom the gift of life itself seems more like a burden than a blessing, for whom the life they lead is endless toil for no profit whatsoever.
The thing is, their jailor is not some foreign entity, holding them captive for supposed crimes against the state; or even some domestic police force, binding them for the crimes that they have committed.
They are not held in some prison cell, or labor camp, or penitentiary with high walls and many guards. To be fair, they’d probably ask for such easy bondage if they could, if they could ask for anything from their jailor.
They cannot, the one who holds them captive does not hear their words, does not see their scars, does not taste their despair. They are held with cold and dispassionate ferocity; a tenacity that is almost unbreakable, very close to being absolute, very nearly perfect in its cruelty.
And it is cruel. It is not merely bondage for their bodies that we speak of this morning, nor merely the chains of iron and walls of stone that make up our image of what a prison truly is. Those are the mundane horrors that people are capable of heaping upon the heads of those we wish to oppress, hold down, diminish, destroy.
No, when you want to plumb the depths of depravity that man is capable of inflicting on his fellow man you have to move a little higher, you have to attack the will, the heart, the spirit of a person. The bondage of which we speak this morning is such that even in the absence of walls, in the places where there are no chains and there are not fetters and there are no walls to bind people they still cannot flee.
They are in such darkness that the light itself hurts them, brings them pain beyond even their understanding, they who have endured so much pain already that it is like a brother to them.
It even crosses over the border from the things that make up who and what we are into the realm of the spiritual, whose we are and who made us this way and what we are meant for. What binds those of our brothers and sister who fall into the trap I am speaking of this morning do not know a loving savior, a gracious God. They cannot feel his good pleasure at the creation, cannot feel his hand upon them, supporting, loving, nurturing.
Those things are still all about them, you cannot be in the creation itself and be far from the hand and the handiwork of God and yet those lost in this prison cannot see, cannot feel that blessing, they are blocked and lost and awash in despair.
Do you know who their jailor is? Can you guess where these shadow prisoners are being held? It is difficult thing to come to grips with in a world like ours where we so seldom are confronted with this kind of personal depravity, cruelty and evil, yes, let’s just call it evil, but here it is nonetheless.
No one is crueler to us, no one can cause us more harm, more fear, more despair than nobody more complicated or hard to find than the person we look at in the mirror each morning, the person who holds so many captive is the person closest to them, the person they think they are inside their heads.
It is there that the belief can grow, the ground is fertile for it and the water is all around us, the belief can grow that God is not on our side, that God’s love is not for us unless we are righteous, that the Law given to us by God is a force meant to restrain and compel, to bind and to hamper, to limit and to deny us the lives that we want to have, the happiness we are seeking, the fulfillment of our hopes and dreams.
Cling to that belief and everything that you do that brings you pleasure, each smile and each laugh is a thing of shame, each beer is sin, each doughnut is an abomination and even the love between two people, one of our greatest blessings of all, a gift from God without parallel is something bound and rigidly controlled, lest it get too blessed.
When God is the judge and only the judge, the lawgiver who expects obedience and purity before the law then God is not the one who created you for relationship and worship, created you to know and to love God in gratitude for all of your blessings and to seek God’s will in what you do. No, if God is only judge and the only adjective you have for God is Just, then God is the stern guard in the watchtower, ready to pounce and punish, to hobble you, to diminish you into a position where you have no other choice than to be obedient, no other recourse.
A God who is only Just is a God with no grace and belief in such a God is a prison of un-matched strength and fortitude.
It hears the word “do not kill” and immediately tries to nuance it, to find a way through it where they can be just as sinful as they ever were, but find a way that God’s wrath will not fall upon them.
They will say that it means “do not murder” and excuse themselves from killings that take place in wars because those were not the same as murder. They will hide behind the state and ask the state to murder for them in wars and in penitentiaries and try and believe that their hands are clean.
They will twist themselves into a pretzel trying to evade the wrath of God that they know must surely be coming because God is Just and has given us the Law to restrict and to limit us, our awful, venal, sinful depraved, sickening selves.
And no other commandment fares any better. Stealing is okay when you are starving, right? Situational ethics abound when we are afraid of what God might think if we err, if we misstep. Stealing is okay when it is stealing from the government; or it’s only one pencil, what difference does it make if it comes home in my briefcase?
The problem is that stealing is still stealing if you are starving, if you are stealing from the government, if you are just a little light-fingered when it comes to office supplies, just as adultery is still adultery even if the marriage has become loveless and sterile, just as killing is still killing when the general tells you to do it.
When God is only Just, there are no nuances and there is nowhere to hide and the pressure of that belief is a set of manacles the likes of which Torquemada would be forced to envy for all of their biting, tearing cruelty.
And people do it to themselves.
They look at the Bible and they see the same kind of thing that the see when they look at a set of instructions for setting up their new cell phone. If you don’t get it right, then you don’t get the amount of enjoyment you are meant to have and the whole thing is a waste of time and money.
They look at the love letter given to us by God and see only fences and borders, limits of what they think of as their freedom.
But the thing that can break those chains is not a chisel, or a saw or a torch that can separate the links in their chains, the thing that can set all of these captives free is the simple truth, the easiest thing at all to hear and the hardest thing of all to believe when you are bound up in your sin, when you are without hope of ever being righteous and when you think God is looking over your shoulder, checking up on your every move.
It is in every verse, though nowhere explicitly. It is in every chapter, though it is sometimes hard to find what with all of the rules and regulations that are far more obvious.
The law is not a curse meant to limit and to hamper, to keep us from the things that will make us happy. The law is not some taskmaster that compels us to suffer for the sake of our relationship with God.
God sets before us life and prosperity, death and adversity. Each of the laws, each of the regulations, each word of warning and prediction of dire consequences is put there, like a highway sign warning that the road narrows and that the cliff if steep, it is pout there for the sake of you, for the sake of your life and your happiness.
Not so that you will fall into punishment and damnation should you fail to heed, but so that your life could be better if you even bother to try. Rather than prescriptions like those you get for the medicines you take to fix the things that are wrong or broken in your body, these are instead descriptions of a life lived in blessedness, in a right relationships with the Lord your God who has loved you since the very first twinkling on the universe and who only wants what is right and good and holy for you.
If you loved the Lord perfectly, you would not kill, or steal or any of the rst of them and who among you will say that w world without those things would not be immensely better than the one we are living in? Who will stand up and say that a world in which we all honor our mothers and fathers, cherish and love our spouses our whole lives long the way we thought we were going to when we married but lost track of somewhere along the way, who will stand and say that that would not be better than the one in which we now live?
The law was put there to show us how to be the very happiest we could ever be, not to restrain us from happiness, but to enable it, to enable us to choose life and prosperity and turn aside from death and adversity.
When we twist it around and make it the checklist by which we achieve righteousness we set ourselves up, we damn ourselves to endless effort and striving for a goal we will never reach; a perfection we were not created to embody.
Then when the gospel comes, with real justice, the kind that is tempered with mercy, it will be like a warm afternoon after the rain, bringing the growth, allowing a new vision, breaking the chains that bind us, not to God’s vision of righteousness, but our own, flawed vision, our own faulty judgment.
Christ is God’s vision of righteousness. Sure a world in which nobody steals and nobody ever divorces and nobody kills is the perfect world God would have us live in. It just isn’t this world, it’s the world we have access to through the cross, through Christ, through Grace.
Then we shall be free indeed, free to choose life and prosperity, free to be a new creation.