Summary: As we envision the Nativity-—the baby Jesus surrounded by his parents, shepherds and wise men—-let’s remind ourselves that our Lord came to suffer and set captives free.
"Freedom for Prisoners"
Rev Dr Robert Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
As we celebrate the birth of Jesus, let’s also be aware of how He began His ministry. Jesus read these words from Isaiah, and applied them to Himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me...He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners.” (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18).
It was December 1944. German Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was celebrating his last Christmas on the earth. He was only 39 years old. He had spoken publicly against the Nazi regime, and was promptly arrested and sent to prison. He would not survive the war. As Christmas approached, Bonhoeffer sat alone in his cell with his journal. And the thought occurred to him:
“How like being in a prison cell is the Advent of our Lord Jesus Christ. We putter around inside our stone walls and iron bars, and we long to be free. But the door is locked, and it can only be opened from the outside.” Bonhoeffer’s best-known book is The Cost of Discipleship. Being a disciple of Christ ultimately cost Bonhoeffer his life. A faith not worth dying for isn’t worth living for.
In Acts 16 we witness an amazing event—-Paul and Silas are flogged and thrown into prison. At midnight sent an earthquake that shook the foundation of the prison and everyone’s chains came loose. God was freeing these two preachers. What is striking is what these two men were doing just before the earthquake—they were praying and singing hymns to God (vs 25). They were free even in prison, under the worst of circumstances.
The Apostle Paul reveals that sin has enslaved us—we are the prisoners of sin until Christ sets us free. That’s why He came to this world. To unlock and open the door. Our being set free cost Christ everything.
Every Christmas we participate in the Angel Tree ministry of Prison Fellowship. We purchase and deliver gifts for the children of prisoners. And we pray that those in prison find inner freedom by knowing Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you are free indeed.”
I worked in an Army prison in the late 70’s, and have visited people in state correctional facilities. I gave regular briefings to new prisoners. I suggested that perhaps God was using this crisis experience to “get their attention”. Everyone agreed, but usually someone added, “I wish He had tried something else!” I had an answer for that inevitable reply. I stated, “Perhaps He did, but you weren’t listening.” I’ve spoken with prisoners who were free on the inside. They were set free through trust in Christ.
My neighbor, a retired pastor, recently said to me that people are “enslaved by what they give power to.” Peter wrote in his 2nd Epistle, “A man is a slave to whatever has mastered him” (2:19). We often seek to escape reality only to find ourselves in prisons of indifference, materialism, and mindless recreation, and we look back to the freedom Christ made possible, an inner freedom that helps us to be victorious regardless of our circumstances. In Galatians Paul affirms, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1). Freedom is life controlled by truth and motivated by love. Bondage is life controlled by lies and motivated by self-interest.
The popular Christmas carol, “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is an African-American spiritual. Another version of the song tells of the Jewish bondage in Egypt: “Go tell it on the mountain, to let my people go.” Both versions speak of freedom by people who were cruelly treated as property, people who clung to the promises of God and had hope that at least in the next world they would be truly free. One verse of the song declares, “Once I was a seeker; I sought both night and day. I asked the Lord to help me, and He showed me the Way.”
In the 3rd Century A.D. the Roman Emperor Diocletian ordered a brutal persecution of all Christians. Thousands were imprisoned, tortured and martyred. Among them was Saint Nicholas, the Bishop of the Mediterranean city of Myra. Nicholas was finally released from prison when the Emperor Constantine became a follower of Christ. Nicholas’ experience in prison made him compassionate toward the poor and downtrodden. His generous acts of kindness, especially to children, are remembered every Christmas, as gifts are given to children on December 6th, the anniversary of Nicholas’ death. In Europe children put their shoes outside their front door and wake the next morning to find them filled with treats.
National Public Radio interviewed Mark Scott Friday morning, a convicted murderer who found faith in Christ while in prison. After serving out his sentence, he now works for an organization that seeks to help prisoners find hope in Christ. Mark described how Christ entered his life, like a light in a dark room. For Mark, Christmas is a time for second chances.