If you have watched NFL football – or really any sports recently – you probably have noticed an avalanche of ads for the companies “Fan Duel” and “Draft Kings.” It seems like these ads are constantly on TV – and in fact they are. In the week leading up to the start of the NFL season, Draft Kings was the television’s No. 1 advertiser as it showed a commercial every minute and a half. Fan Duel cannot have been far behind.
“Fan Duel” and “Draft Kings” have cashed in on the fantasy football craze – a game in which people select their own team of players and then compete against other people based on the individual statistics of players they select and put in their line up each week.
Fantasy football is huge. Millions of people take part in leagues, sometimes just for bragging rights at the end of the football season and sometimes for the sum of money which all the participants have contributed. What Fan Duel and Draft Kings have done is to place this process online in one week formats. Instead of waiting a whole season, people can play a week at a time. People pay money to play, and then they can win money each week.
Now that may sound like gambling to you. But according to the law – with the exception of Washington, Louisiana, Arizona, Montana, Iowa and now Nevada – it’s not because a 2006 exemption says that the term “‘bet’ or ‘wager’ … does not include … participation in any fantasy or simulation sports game.”
What legislators did not foresee in 2006 was how online fantasy football would explode in popularity. In particular it has been extremely popular with 18-35 year old males. And that is now being recognized as a real problem because young men are the people who are most susceptible to becoming problem gamblers. Research has shown that gambling can be addictive. It stimulates the brain’s reward systems much like drugs do. People, usually men, fall into patterns in which they find themselves unable to stop gambling. They continue to gamble in spite of the fact it is obviously destroying their finances, their marriage and their family. The thrill of gambling becomes a slavery that controls and destroys their lives.
In the Gospel lesson for the Festival of the Reformation, Jesus addresses an unrecognized slavery. He speaks about the slavery of sin and declares that only he can set people free. We describe the Lutheran Reformation that Martin Luther started as being about Scripture alone, grace alone and faith alone. And this is absolutely true. But our text this morning reminds us that the Lutheran Reformation was also about recognizing the true depths of sin so that the glory of the Gospel could come clear.
In our text this morning, Jesus is in Jerusalem and he is in a running discussion with those who oppose him, even as others are listening to the conversation. Jesus had said, “I am going away, and you will seek me, and you will die in your sin. Where I am going, you cannot come.” The Jews were puzzled by this, so Jesus added, “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.”
Our Lord declared that only faith in him could rescue people from their sins. He said that he was from above. The Jews were even more puzzled and so they asked, “Who are you?” Jesus said that he was what he had been telling them from the beginning, and that he had been speaking what he heard from the One who sent him. The Jews did not understand that he had been speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.” And as he was saying these things, many believed in him.
In our text Jesus now says to those who believed in him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Yet this prompts the response, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” In spite of their long history of subjugation, they declared that they had never been enslaved to anyone. And so Jesus replied, “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.”
Human beings want to believe that we are ok. We want to believe that we are our own masters and that we can take care of everything on our own. The first temptation was the suggestion that we could be like God, and we’ve been trying to play that role ever since.
Now if you are a Christian, it becomes rather obvious very quickly that everything is not ok. The Law revealed in God’s Word shows us our sin. It shows that we mess up in thought, word and deed. And the central event of Scripture is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. You can’t avoid the fact that sin is a real problem and that God has acted in Jesus Christ to do something about it.
But even after granting this, it doesn’t mean that you have to give up totally on the idea that we can take care of things – that we can be like God. You just have to modify things a little. That is what the medieval Church had done. She recognized that God’s grace was necessary for forgiveness and salvation. But she set it up in a way that God’s grace equipped the Christian to do his or her part in order to achieve full salvation.
And so at the beginning of the sixteenth century, being a Christian was about doing. In fact the Church had made up the “evangelical counsels” of poverty (the renunciation of private property), chastity (the renunciation of marriage) and obedience to religious superiors that were said to go over and above the Ten Commandments in obtaining merit before God. To be “religious” was to become a monk or a nun and take up the performance of these evangelical counsels.
Martin Luther did this. And he did it all the way. He was the monk’s monk. And what he found was that his doing – even when it was supposed to be assisted by God’s grace – could never bring him peace. It could never bring him peace because Luther knew that his doing was always plagued by sin. It was never perfect. It was never pure. It was never holy.
The flip side of Luther’s discovery of the Gospel is the recognition that ever since the Fall we are warped and twisted by sin. We have lost the image of God. Rather than loving and serving God and our neighbor we are turned in on ourselves. We have a God. It’s the unholy trinity of me, myself and I. And even after we have been reborn through the work of the Spirit in Holy Baptism, this old Adam continues to cling to us. St. Paul described this as the Spirit and the flesh when told the Galatians, “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.”
Because this is so, any version of Christianity that gives a role to our doing in order to attain full salvation – or in order to achieve assurance that we are in fact a believer and are saved – is doomed to failure. It is doomed because it has failed to come to terms with what God’s Word teaches about fallen humanity. Martin Luther’s experience told him that something was very wrong. His study of Scripture revealed what that problem was – the true depths of our slavery to sin.
Yet at the same time, as Luther studied God’s Word the Gospel that provides the answer to this slavery became clear. In our text today Jesus 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.” Luther discovered that the Church had not been abiding in Christ’s word. She had lost sight of the fact that Jesus alone has provided forgiveness and salvation through his death and resurrection. There is nothing to add. There is nothing to do. There is nothing that we can do.
Jesus says in our text this morning, “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.” Jesus the Son of God has set you free. It is completely a matter of God’s grace. It is an undeserved gift. It is a gift that is simply received by faith – by believing in Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the dead.
In Romans chapter 4 St. Paul defines this faith as the opposite of doing. He wrote, “For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” The illustration that I use with the catechumens is this. If I tell you I am going to give you a million dollars, what can you do to make that happen? Nothing! All you can “do” is trust me and wait to receive it. In the same way faith passively receives the blessing of forgiveness that Christ has won. After all, as Jesus says in our text today, it is the Son who sets you free – you have nothing to do with it.
The truth about human beings is a bummer. Spiritually we are completely messed up from the moment we are conceived. Physically we are headed for death from that first moment when we are alive. Sin has caused all of this. Even when we have been made a new creation in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit in baptism, we still have the old Adam clinging to us and fighting against the good every step of the way. The Spirit does enable us to begin to love God and our neighbor instead of ourselves, but this love is never perfect.
The Good News of the Gospel that Luther rediscovered in the Reformation is that Christ saves us in spite of this sin. Indeed, he saves us because of this sin – because we are completely incapable of doing anything to free ourselves from the slavery of sin. Instead by God’s grace, Jesus Christ has done everything for us. And he says to all those who believe in hin, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”