Reading Exodus 6: 2-13
Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
I’m going to begin with a few words that for some have attained almost the status of Holy Writ. I’m sure you’ll recognise them. ‘It is … for us to be … dedicated to the great task remaining before us … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth’.
Those words from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address were given during the American Civil War at the reburial of some of the dead from the Battle of Gettysburg.
The keyword in that sentence is freedom – freedom from any form of tyranny. And that is not an ignoble nor an unnatural aspiration for oneself and for one’s community. It’s one of the quintessential aspirations that human beings have always had and still have.
Now, although in the King James version of the passage from Exodus that we just heard the word freedom is not explicitly used, freedom is the subject, freedom for the Israelites from slavery to the Egyptians.
The acquisition of freedom by and through the power of God is the very backbone of the Bible story. God gives freedom to his people. That’s simply what God does, if we allow him.
The freedom described in the Old Testament is basically political and communal. The Israelites are given a land where, if they are true to their covenant with God, they will be able to live lives beyond the reach of the oppressor’s hand.
The New Testament’s concept of freedom is perhaps more psychological and individualistic. It’s a more inward freedom – freedom from sin, freedom from fear, freedom from the fear of death.
Now, that’s a very rough and ready description of the differences between the Old and New Testaments. You’ll find plenty of passages in the Old Testament about being delivered from sin and death and you’ll find plenty in the New Testament about living in community.
That said, I guess there are indeed two types of freedom: an outward, political freedom and an inner, psychological freedom. And we find both of them described, desired and achieved in the Bible.
We want freedom but freedom of any sort implies responsibility. Once we achieve freedom, we have to do something with it. Freedom can easily become almost a burden.
Think of the difference between owning your home and renting your home. If you own your own home, you have all the responsibility of looking after it. If the plumbing goes wrong, you’ve got to fix it yourself or call out a plumber. If the roof leaks, you’ve got to get it seen to. Everything is your responsibility. But if you rent your home, maintaining the property is your landlord’s job. It’s not your responsibility.
You could say it’s similar with freedom and slavery. When you’re free, you have responsibility for how things go and how things are run. If you’re a slave, somebody else is in charge.
Now, all analogies break down sooner or later and I have to admit that this one breaks down sooner than most. No-one in their right mind would want to be a slave, whereas renting your home represents in many ways a perfectly sensible option.
But the point is this: when we’re free, we can’t – at least with any integrity – shuffle the blame off onto somebody else. We become responsible for the way we behave. That’s why freedom isn’t a cosy option. It requires maturity and judgement and hard work.
That’s why the Israelites found it tough going when they got to live in the land flowing with milk and honey to which God had called them. They found out that living in freedom wasn’t as easy as perhaps they’d imagined.
This is all tied in with what we mean by freedom. Being set free, as we Christians believe, by God in Christ doesn’t mean being able to do whatever we fancy, whenever we fancy it. That might look like freedom in a sense but in reality it just means that we’ve exchanged one form of slavery for another.
It seems to me, and I think this is entirely biblical, that we are free exactly in so far as we are able to love. Exactly to that extent. For Jesus love was the fulfilling of the Law and the prophets. For St Paul love was the sovereign virtue. We simply can’t get away from the necessity of love.
Love and freedom are in a way synonymous. When we love, we are fulfilling our deepest nature, we are living in accordance with our deepest and most authentic selves. That is surely what real freedom is – not doing what some passing whim or some psychological malfunction impels to do, but acting in accordance with who we really are.
I mentioned a few moments ago that there are two types of freedom – the outward freedom of politics and community, and the inner freedom that comes when we are no longer in thrall to sin and fear, and to the fear of death in particular.
But essentially they are the same freedom – at least in the sense that, in the last analysis, these inward and outward forms of slavery are dispelled by love. Don’t we know that from personal experience? When the ability to love fills the person I am, I sense the freedom that accompanies it. When my ability to love is weak, then I know the tyranny of selfishness and fear that still has me in its grip.
That goes for our personal lives. It goes for our lives in community as well. When love is strong in a community, people flourish. When love disappears in our political and communal life, then our various egotisms ravage each other like demented wolves in the woods of our own darkness.