Freedom to Choose
When I was working on the book I published on the Great British Hymns – John Parker and I visited Oxford and whilst there visited one of the oldest English churches in the centre of Oxford. On a pillar near the pulpit was a small plaque commemorating those men martyred by Queen Mary in the street outside that very church. I looked up the story when I got home and the most powerful account is that of Thomas Cranmer – who had been the Archbishop of Canterbury – when Henry VIII had been alive he supported Henry’s break from the Catholic church and provided much of the theology that let Henry justify his rejection of the Popes rule over the church. But when Mary came to the throne she insisted that Cranmer and other church leaders denounce the Protestant faith and write a letter of submission to the Pope. 5 times Cranmer wrote that letter – tearing it up 4 times. Mary didn’t believe his final letter of submission was sincere so made him sign it in public on the floor of that church in Oxford – but in the end he refused – and the historical record in the archives at Winsor report his words, "I have sinned, in that I signed with my hand what I did not believe with my heart. When the flames are lit, this hand shall be the first to burn." He was led outside and tied to a stake above a pyre of hay and wood. When the fire was lit around his feet, he leaned forward and held his right hand in the fire until it was charred to a stump. Aside from this, he did not speak or move, except that once he raised his left hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
I wanted to start this morning with an example of an extreme choice – but a choice that in many ways is the perfect context for our study this morning. The theme this month is Freedom in Christ – I wanted to invite us to think this morning about our freedom to choose - the detail and depth of the choices we make and the importance of that freedom in the covenant we have with God our father through Christ.
From the outset God determined that his creation would not be under his direct control. He gave us life – and a complex and beautiful world full of everything we need to not simply survive but to flourish, to enjoy. The tree, literal or symbolic, but real nonetheless, represents Gods openness to mans self-determination. He told his creation to leave it alone, he gave them all they needed and more, and still they wanted what they couldn’t have, their refusal to deny self won out and they squandered Gods precious gift in the garden – and they were free to do so….
When Joshua laid out the choices to the Israelites it wasn’t for the first time. He asked them to choose who would be their God ‘choose today who you will serve’ he said in Jos 24. Choose between the true God of heaven who had delivered his people or lesser false Gods? For us as it was for them we are presented with a choice between the God of heaven who makes some demands on us to sacrifice our own interests and the lesser God of choice, to be able to satisfy our immediate physical and earthly demands and desires. A modern translation of Joshua’s challenge is to choose this day whom you will serve – God or Self? For Cranmer it may have looked like a choice between survival and martyrdom – but that’s too simple. For Cranmer I imagine it was a truly deep spiritual wrestling with an even bigger issue – choosing between life here and now and his eternal destiny – his choice was the ultimate act of faith, faith in action in the most difficult circumstances – acknowledging that the big choice we all make, is one between the here and now and our eternal life beyond this place.
Rom 6 – we’ve spent a lot of time there in recent weeks and I make no apology for reading this again:
v6 -18.We know that our old sinful selves were crucified with Christ so that sin might lose its power in our lives. We are no longer slaves to sin. For when we died with Christ we were set free from the power of sin. And since we died with Christ, we know we will also live with him. We are sure of this because Christ was raised from the dead, and he will never die again. Death no longer has any power over him. When he died, he died once to break the power of sin. But now that he lives, he lives for the glory of God. So you also should consider yourselves to be dead to the power of sin and alive to God through Christ Jesus. Do not let sin control the way you live; do not give in to sinful desires. Do not let any part of your body become an instrument of evil to serve sin. Instead, give yourselves completely to God, for you were dead, but now you have new life. So use your whole body as an instrument to do what is right for the glory of God. Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace.
What did it say? Don’t let sin control the way you live – don’t give in to sinful desires – don’t let any part of you be an instrument that serves sin… We read this passage so often because it assures us that Gods grace through the cross breaks the power that sin has over us – but this is also a passage about choice – not the big choice – to choose God – but choice after choice after choice – that passage as you well know tells us – don’t exploit Gods grace – don’t say that sin doesn’t matter because God has it covered. Paul couldn’t be clearer – don’t let sin control the way you live – don’t let the world and its ungodly imperatives and rules define who you are and what you do.
You see too often we see these passages as passages speaking about others, the lost not us. But I read them and I see that it isn’t just as black and white as that. 1 John 1 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.
8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.
We sin – but if we walk in the light, if we confess our sin, Christ’s blood cleanses us from that sin. 1 John is saying, don’t pretend to yourself that you don’t sin but equally, don’t convince yourself it doesn’t matter. It needs to be dealt with, brought to Christ and it need not be a burden. But we make choices that often are the choices we would associate with those In the world’ as we put it…– we read another this morning from James 4 - What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.
Or 2 Tim 3 For people will love only themselves and their money. They will be boastful and proud, scoffing at God, disobedient to their parents, and ungrateful. They will consider nothing sacred. They will be unloving and unforgiving; they will slander others and have no self-control. They will be cruel and hate what is good. They will betray their friends, be reckless, be puffed up with pride, and love pleasure rather than God. They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. Stay away from people like that!
Stay away from people like that! What if WE are people like that! Brethren we need to set ourselves apart from the world not just with the single big choice of repentance but a consistent, prayerful and repetitive series of choices that go on choosing God with actions that are consistently repentant. It isn’t good enough to be envious or quarrelsome or divisive or slanderous or unforgiving or unloving and say – YOUR GRACE IS ENOUGH – it is! But not if your heart isn’t in it, not if you don’t take sin seriously..
Why do we do it? Why is it that we let ourselves be characterized and tainted with things that aren’t good, or by secular priorities instead of Godly ones? Why do we have so little self-control, why do we betray people or criticize the good intentions of others while Paul says in 2 Tim we act like we are religious? WE DO IT because ultimately we choose to – that’s harsh I know, but often it’s the simple truth – we become addicted to a certain way of responding or acting or we become addicted to a certain routine or to a worldly set of priorities – ME TOO brethren!
I’ve said this before, we need to be addicted to God – as the chorus says wrapped up, all caught up all tangled up in Jesus – not in the tangle of the world. Please – don’t switch off when I say that – because you’re hearing yourself say, no I’m not tangled up in the world – every one of us has made the wrong choices and we’ve done it over and over again and I expect we will continue to do so after we leave here this morning… but maybe, maybe we can reflect on the freedom Christ bought for us – the freedom to choose Him – don’t blame it on the flesh. I know that even when I’ve had a momentary pause for thought I’ve sometimes still made the wrong choice…I’m ashamed that that’s true and I blame no-one but me. I’m not shouting I CAN’T HELP MYSELF I CAN’T HELP IT LORD – because sometimes I can, because if I want Him and have a prayerful and open heart I can choose to do or say the right thing. Why would Paul in 1 Cor 15 tell us that bad company corrupts us and command ‘Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning’ if we can’t actually achieve it? We can – with the Holy Spirit we can.. In John 5 why would Jesus tell the invalid he cured at the sheep gate pool to stop sinning? Because sometimes sin is what we choose.
I was walking the dog recently down by the harbor in Donaghadee. There were a number of fishing boats moored up. It made me think about just how often Jesus used fishing as a way of encouraging his disciples to cast off from the shore that they knew in order to fish for the lost. One of the boats had been moored there for some time. Big heavy chains held it to the harbor wall but just beside it was a smaller commercial boat – attached to the harbor by a single rope looped through a metal hoop on the face of the wall. It was ready to go – lightly attached. That should be how we are to the world, in it – because we should live here and live out Gods promise amongst men, but lightly attached not moored up with an anchor cast so deep that its just too hard to get loose.
Later on in 2 Tim 3 (v10)– Paul writes to Timothy telling him that his life was lived in contrast to what he had just described – he says ‘but you followed my teaching, conduct, purpose, faith, patience, love, perseverance’ Timothy CHOSE that path – why else does scripture repeatedly urge us to choose love, kindness, patience, forbearance, - because if we are in Christ we will bear the right fruit.
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.
If we are led by the Spirit we aren’t under the law. The freedom we have from the law (rules) and the freedom we have from sin through Gods grace has a purpose – so that we don’t become defeated or burdened by our failing (because even with the best intentions we will fail). But despite that wonderful promise of sanctification - with that freedom comes responsibility. We have a responsibility not to think sin unimportant, and a responsibility to face our sin head on. For us it isn’t most of the things in the Galatians 5 list – orgies, debauchery, witchcraft but it might be jealousy, discord, selfishness, factions, envy… 1 Cor 10:23-24 says some interesting stuff about our freedom in Christ:
Everything is permissible"—but not everything is beneficial. "Everything is permissible"—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, "The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it."
If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
F LaGard Smiths daily Bible devotional has some useful stuff to say about this passage: For Jews having suffocated for generations under the demands of the law, freedom in Christ was heady stuff! Even for non-Jews, Christian liberation had great appeal. But freedom and liberation can easily erode into self-indulgence and irresponsibility, especially with regard to others. So here we find Paul issuing caution to those Corinthians flaunting their newfound freedom in front of weaker Christians, not thinking for a minute how their actions might lead others astray. Paul doesn’t dispute the basic premise that in Christ the prohibitions of strict legalism have given way to the grace of permission – but what he does say is that with increased freedom in Christ comes increased responsibility. This new permission or freedom demand the same kind of maturity that we all face with our own children – where we gradually wean them from the simplicity from black and white rules to the reality of complex choice.
In a choice centred society – where we have absolute freedom of choice, the right to do and say whatever we want, the right to make bad or even stupid choices – like smoking or eating food that’s clearly killing us, it’s difficult for us to live with restraint or to exercise forbearance. Yet that’s what Paul is telling those of us who are in Christ to do. Would any of us open a bottle of wine in front of a struggling alcoholic or an impressionable teenager – even if we had a clear conscience about it? With freedom comes responsibility – what we choose to do and how we decide to act – even if our own conscience is clear – should never be at the expense of the vulnerable, a weak brother or sister, a young Christian a young person or our children… So even if the answer is yes to the question ‘ have I a right to do it – is it my choice?’ we need to remember that that is never the final question. That question will be asked of us by God himself…
The choices we make daily are not always black and white – they are seemingly insignificant even, maybe we don’t even think of them as choices – but they are, choices that we make between Gods will for us and our own self interest and self satisfaction. In the garden at Gethsemane Jesus Christ, the son of God struggled with a choice that we can only imagine – what he faced that night was enormous – and it was a choice – he could have walked away from what awaited him, he could have stopped the pain, stopped the hands that wielded the hammers, but he made his choice – he chose us – us the weak and struggling and sinful…he chose first, now the choice is ours.
In the midst of this global financial crisis how many times have you heard it said that we are a nation of debt because the banks made it too easy for us to borrow money, gave us credit cards and loans knowing we couldn’t really afford them? How often do you hear people blame the advertisers or the cigarette manufacturers for the lung cancer they ended up with from years of smoking, there is an element of blame in that but we must accept responsibility for things we choose! We can’t spend our lives blaming others or blaming our circumstances. God wants us to make the right choices, what ultimately will he say to our excuses? Who are we kidding with our reasons for blatantly choosing to do the wrong thing?
As a society, we have become adept at blaming others. And that can even happen in the church. We begin to fall away from the Lord, & we say, “It’s not my fault. I’m not to blame. It’s the church’s fault or it’s that persons fault. They aren’t friendly enough, or the church didn’t meet my needs, or people don’t do things the way I think they should or the services aren’t exciting enough. But it’s not my fault.” But its important for us to know that the Bible very clearly teaches that we’re responsible for our choices. Romans 14:12 says, “So…each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Theres a story about twin sisters who had an alcoholic mother. One of them became an alcoholic, & the other a total abstainer. When the alcoholic one was asked why, she said, “Well, my mother was an alcoholic, so what can you expect?” When the other was asked why she became a total abstainer she said, “Well, my mother was an alcoholic, so what can you expect?”
You see, the choice is ours. We can choose to be better than our parents or to rise above what others might expect us to become in life – we can change the direction of our lives any time if we really want to. Now if you’re a cabbage seed, you really have no choice. They’ll plant you in the ground, water you, & you’ll become a cabbage. You don’t have any choice. But God teaches that as human beings we’re created higher than plants & animals, & we have the freedom to make choices. We can choose to be good or to be bad. You can choose how to live your life – you can choose how to spend the money you earn – selfishly or selflessly – it’s a choice. And don’t say – well I can’t because I have too many financial commitments, I can’t afford it – who chose those commitments? The house, the mortgage – who set the priorities? You did. But always remember, we’re free to choose but responsible for the choices we make and the consequences of those choices for others.
I don’t know if any of you have seen the Christian movie – Fireproof – I can lend it to you if you’d like to watch it. It is a film about a couple whose young marriage has collapsed. They fight all the time, criticize each other, live separate lives, passing each other in the mornings at the breakfast table. There is a seemingly inevitable moment where the woman shouts, I want out, I want a divorce… The man agrees and when talking about it with a work colleague he acknowledges that his marriage is definitely over. They pretty much have come to hate each other, they rarely talk, just shout… It’s the young mans father who asks him ‘is there anything in your marriage you want to save?’ If the answer is yes he says then its in your power to choose to save it, to embark on a mission to save your marriage. You see what that film tells us is that there is always a choice – we just too often make to obvious one, or the easy one or the one that everyone else is making and we quite easily feel justified because there’s a pattern out there of thousands of others who have chosen the same thing and moved on to live a happy enough life, that choice is not the Christ choice, the selfless choice. Even in the most hopeless of circumstances with the seemingly most obvious outcome – WE STILL HAVE A CHOICE – we have the freedom in Christ to make the right choice.
Cranmers story and the choice he had to make facing that fire is extreme – you see I’d like to think that we all would choose the same thing faced which such a stark and terrible choice. But it isn’t the big choices that we have a problem with. It’s the daily choice of Godliness or self that we all struggle with.
We can say – it’s the way God made me that’s why I do that, or you don’t understand how hard it is for me or I’ve tried to change but can’t, or I’ve made choices that I can never escape or feel free of.. Gods promise to us is this: No matter how many wrong choices we have made, or how bad or how dark or how deep they are, none are so bad that the blood of Jesus Christ can’t make you clean & new again. And we all can make the choice to change starting with the small choices, the daily choices. The truth has set you free. The choice is yours, to accept that freedom and walk out of the prison of our self centred lives to live lives that choose Christ.
Let me finish with this thought. Is there any significance to there being two crosses beside Jesus on the Calvary hill? Why not ten, twelve? Why one either side with Jesus in the middle? Well, what a picture it presents of the mankind he was dying for – in that big moment the choices where black and white, either, or. One shouted abuse at Jesus, rejecting and mocking Him while the other defended Him, recognised who he was and asked Him to remember Him when he came into his Kingdom. One who chose repentance and one who chose death. What about the one we usually forget or ignore? The unrepentant thief. Wouldn’t it have been timely for Jesus to persuade the man, to offer him a word of hope? Max Lucado writes this in response to that: ‘There are times when God sends thunder to stir us. There are times when God sends blessings to lure us. But then there are times when God sends nothing but silence as he honors us with the freedom to choose where we will spend eternity.