Maps can be deceptive. And I’m not talking about those times when the GPS directions you are receiving on your navigation device or phone are wrong. That’s another matter altogether when you have a computerized voice talking to you that has no idea about what the situation really is.
No, I’m talking about the way that maps can give us a false impression. Awhile back there was an interesting piece on the internet about how maps distort our perception of how big the continent of Africa is. This is caused by the fact the world is a sphere, but maps are flat. This fact along with the positioning of Africa on the globe means that it seems smaller than it really is – for in fact you can fit the continental United States, China, India, Eastern and Western Europe and Japan within the continent of Africa.
A different kind of false impression is given when you look at a map of ancient Israel and the surrounding area. At first glance it appears that Israel is simply part of the land that extends east from the Mediterranean Sea. However, what you don’t see when looking at the map is the topography and climate of that area, and what this meant for Israel as it related to the surrounding regions.
Northeast of Israel you have the region of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. These rivers nourished a land that supported agriculture and produced great societies like the Sumerians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians. Northwest of Israel you have Asia Minor, or what is today called Turkey. This too had successful peoples and it bordered Greece. To the south you have Egypt, where the Nile River’s annual flooding produced bountiful crops and supported the kingdoms of the Pharaohs.
What the map doesn’t really make clear is that as you head east from the Israel you encounter dry conditions that don’t really support agriculture, until finally you are in a desert. On the west of Israel is the Mediterranean Sea. On the east is land that is uninhabitable and impassable. And there sits Israel – a land bridge that connects the great regions of Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Egypt.
It was inevitable that the great powers that arose in these regions would come into conflict as they vied for supremacy. And it was inevitable that Israel would be caught in the middle of these struggles that always involved Egypt. And so a “who’s who” of great ancient powers conquered the land of Israel during the centuries: the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Ptolemies, the Seleucids and the Romans.
It is this history that makes the statement in our text this morning so comical as the Jews opposing Jesus say, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” That’s rather like a Chicago Cubs fan saying, “We’ve never had an unsuccessful season.” It’s absurd.
Of course, Jesus is talking about a different kind of slavery – slavery to sin. And on this point these first century Jews, like many others, were also self-deluding. They did not see themselves as slaves of sin. In fact research during the last thirty years or so has shown that Jews during this period had a positive estimation of their spiritual abilities. They certainly had a positive evaluation of their status as the descendants of Abraham and as God’s chosen people.
It is this background that makes our text relevant for today, our observation of the Festival of the Reformation. Martin Luther lived at time when the teaching of the Church also attributed to people a very positive estimation of their spiritual abilities. In one system associated with a theologian named Gabriel Biel, it was believed the person had to make the first move. Then God gave his grace in a way that equipped the person to work with God in achieving salvation. In another system associated with the theologian Thomas Aquinas, God made the first move with his grace. Yet then, like in the other system, this grace equipped the person to work with God in achieving salvation.
Martin Luther embraced this teaching about working with God. He did it all the way. Not only did he become the medieval definition of “religious” by leaving the world and entering the monastery, he was then “the monk’s monk.” He went after it with all that he was. In fact his biographer’s believe that the poor health that he often experienced during the course of the Reformation was caused by the physical damage he had done to himself during these years.
Luther wanted to have a righteous standing before God. In the midst of all his religious efforts, that was his goal. But he found that his efforts could never give him peace. They could never bring comfort. Because when salvation involves some element of human doing, you can never escape the question, “How do I know that I have done enough?” Beyond that, when we honestly probe our actions we find that they are never free from sin. Mixed in with the most noble of intentions, desires and deeds are selfish and sinful motivations. It became clear to Luther that his efforts could not free him from sin.
There are those who say that the Luther’s Reformation rediscovery of the free gift of forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ is no longer relevant. It is no longer relevant because people are no longer concerned with sin. They are not trying to find a gracious God because they don’t believe sin exists.
To be honest … there is an element of truth to this. For it is true, that much of our world has done away with right and wrong. There is only what is right for me and what is right for you – and who am I to judge? Right now in Bible class we are looking at the Sixth Commandment, and it has made for some very interesting discussion. Because in the areas that relate to the use of God’s gift of sexuality the world has said that there is basically nothing that is wrong. As long as the people involved give their consent, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you are not married. It doesn’t matter if the person is someone else’s spouse. If doesn’t matter if the person is of the same sex. It doesn’t matter how many people are involved.
That’s the way it is and I certainly don’t expect this to change. Yet in spite of this, there are two realities that will not go away. The first is that when you choose to reject the way God has ordered his creation, you will pay a price. You will bring harm upon yourself. And the evidence of this is all around us in the wreckage of families and marriage itself; in the harm done to children deprived of a father or a mother; in the destructive chaos that is now called sexual assault on college campuses.
Yet there is an even more significant reality that does not change. Just before our text, Jesus says to those who reject him, “You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins.” Sin is like gravity. You can say it doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t change the fact that if you fall out of the window of a tall building you will go splat. Sin brings death. And those who die in sin don’t simply die. They are cut off from God in damnation.
Like Luther, you know that sin is real. That’s why you are here today. You know the ways that you fail to love God. You know the ways you fail to love your neighbor. You know the harm this causes to yourself and others. And like Luther, you know that your efforts can’t do anything about it. They can’t remove guilt. They can’t remove shame. They can’t bring peace.
In our text this morning, our Lord speaks very bluntly about sin. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” But he also says, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Jesus says to abide in his word – his word of the Gospel. He says that we are to center our life around the good news of his death and resurrection for the forgiveness of our sins.
That’s what Martin Luther discovered. The Gospel came clear as he recognized that the heart of God’s word is not about what we must do. It’s not about Law. Instead, it is about what God has done for you in his Son, Jesus Christ. It’s about the gift of forgiveness and righteousness and peace that you could never earn. It’s about the Gospel.
And because it is about God’s doing, it is certain and sure. There is no doubt. There is no uncertainty. There is only the peace of knowing that we are the forgiven children of God. For as Jesus says in our text today, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”