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
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
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.”