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Lent 4 Sermon

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One of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited is the prison on Alcatraz Island.  On my trip to the island, I had the privilege of sitting in the prison cell of mafia henchman Al Capone.  Perhaps the biggest reason this prison was so fascinating was you actually got to experience what it would be like to be a prisoner.  Surrounded by massive concrete walls and hemmed in by thick iron bars, it wasn’t hard to feel the sickness of claustrophobia set in.  And that was after 15 seconds.  No, its not surprising at all, that many prisoners who ended up on that island, would rather face certain death in the waves of San Francisco Bay, than spend more time in that prison.  I imagine most of the prisoners in that fortress of a prison spent their days wishing and waiting for the day that they would be set free. 

Can you imagine what it would feel like for those prisoners on the day they were finally set free? 

In the Second Lesson for today, from Romans, chapter 8, St. Paul reminds us that we, too, were prisoners.  He tells us that we were inmates in the prison of sin and death.  But Paul has news: God has flung open the gates of our jail cells.

We Have Been Set Free!

Set Free From a Sin-filled Death

Set Free For a Spirit-filled Life

We are set free from a sin-filled death.  When the prisoners left Alcatraz Island, you can imagine that they would not want to go back there.  They would want to stay far away.  They most certainly would not want to have to sit in those tiny jail cells again.  In our lesson Paul begins by telling us exactly why we don’t want to go back to the prison of sin and death.

He wrote, Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”  These words certainly remind us of the freedom we have from Christ Jesus.  But they also remind us of where we were before.  Now there is no condemnation, but before?   We were condemned criminals.  Prisoners in sin’s jail without a hope of escape. 

But what got us there?  And how do we make sure we don’t ever go back?

Paul answers these questions saying, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature.”  We became prisoners because we were powerless, powerless to fulfill God’s demands on us.  Demands that required perfection.  Be perfect, he said, as I the LORD your God am perfect.  We couldn’t keep these demands and Paul told us why.  We were weakened, weakened by our sinful nature.  In our weakness we could never do what God’s law demanded of us. 

Paul’s is urging his fellow ex-prisoners to recognize that we have this weakness and to encourage us not to place our trust in ourselves.  On our own, we are weak; we are powerless.  We are unable to earn any status with God.  Trying to put emphasis on ourselves only sends us in chains back to the prison of sin and death.

It’s for this reason that Jesus so firmly reproached James and John in today’s Gospel.  They sent their mother to ask that they receive the “special status” with God.  They asked to be seated at Jesus’ left and right.  They certainly felt they had earned such positions of honor because of all the work they were doing for Jesus.  But Jesus responded that they had no idea what they were asking.  He pointed out that they could never do what was needed for them to be saved.  

Aren’t we often tempted to think just like those disciples?  Isn’t it far too easy to begin playing the comparison game?  We see the faults of others and we begin to think that we are better than they are.  We begin to think that we’ve somehow earned some sort of status that sets us above others.

But Paul calls us weak and powerless.  He doesn’t call us “good” or “better”; he calls us condemned.  He reminds us that trying to secure our “status” on the basis of what we’ve done leads us back to the prison we were freed from.  And we certainly don’t want to ever go back there. 

But let’s go back to those inmates who were set free from Alcatraz.  Do you think they valued their freedom? 

Paul explains that we too can realize just how wonderful our freedom from the prison of sin and death really is.   He tells us that, “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”.  Do you hear any doubt in that statement?  No, Paul is plain and clear.  We have been proclaimed innocent by Christ.

Paul continues saying that he “set me free from the law of sin and death.”  This is the law that had condemned us and thrown us in prison.  But here the tables are turned.  Because of Christ, this law no longer has any power over us.  How did this happen?

Paul tells us that God sent his Son in our likeness as a sin offering.  Jesus served as our substitute and carried the penalty we deserved.  Isn’t this what we have been seeing in Lent?  A few weeks ago we saw Jesus fight in the wilderness against the devil’s temptations and win.  In a few weeks on Good Friday, we’ll see Jesus arms outstretched on a cross. 

Paul continues by pointing out that in our place, sin is condemned.  Paul says that God “condemned sin in sinful man”.  God took the shackles off of our ankles and placed them upon sin.  And why did he do all of this for us?

Jesus did this “So that the righteous requirements of the law might be met in us”.  His life and his sacrifice covered all of God’s requirements we failed to make on our own.  Yes, his sacrifice even covers those times when we like James and John become too focused on ourselves.  All of our failures are completely forgiven. 

We have been set free! Set free from a sin-filled death.

When the inmates from Alcatraz were released, their lives were completely different.  As they went about their daily lives, they certainly realized just how much nicer life was away from that prison.  Their lives were completely changed.

When Paul wrote about freedom, he went on by comparing our lives as prisoners, to what our lives are now as freed people.  We see how our lives have been completely changed.  We are now set free for a Spirit-filled life.

Paul starts by telling us how we were freed for a life of spiritual service.  But he begins by pointing out how different our lives are now from when we were prisoners.  He writes, “Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires.”  We were selfish, self-focused, self-loving, and self-serving.  We were just like James and John, aimed on gaining status.

But now that we have been freed, we no longer have to live a life as a prisoner to our sinful nature and its selfish desires.  Paul writes, “but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”  We now can live lives of thankful service.  This was Jesus response to James and John in the Gospel when he said, “Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant,  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  So we are free to serve others, instead of ourselves.

We are also freed to have a life filled with peace.  Before we were freed Paul indicated that our mind lead only to death.  Death which was bleak and hopeless.  Death which filled us with worry and pain.  We could never live up to the standard that God set for us, no matter how hard we tried.

But now that we have been freed, Paul points out that we have life and peace.  We recognize that Christ’s sacrifice makes us alive spiritually.  We can have hope of a life eternal in heaven.   We no longer have to worry.  Everything has been taken care of for us.  We can have peace of mind.

Next, we have a life freed for pleasing God.  Paul writes of how we acted before we were free, stating, “the sinful mind  is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”  Oh we certainly tried to please God; we would do all sorts of things to try to be “good” in his sight.  But we could never please God.  We could never achieve what he required of us.  Our good works always fall short of God’s demands. 

But now that we have been freed, this has all changed, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you.”  The Spirit works in our hearts.  We are no longer under sin’s control.  Our works are not done for status, but for thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving for everything that Christ has done for us.  They are done in faith, faith which trusts in Christ’s sacrifice.  These works are pleasing to God.  He certainly enjoys the thankful actions of his believers.

The final major change between our lives in the prison of sin and death and our lives of freedom in Christ is that we are free to have a relationship with God.  While we were in sin’s prison we could not have a relationship with God, as Paul points out “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.”  We were completely separated from God.  We were cozying up to sin and death, and wanted nothing to do with God.  Sin and death owned us.

But that all changed when we were freed from sin’s prison.  Paul states, “But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness.”  We are now God’s children, adopted and paid for by his precious blood.  We have now become his heirs, heirs to everlasting life.  And because of this relationship, we can be confident that he will always be there for us.  We can talk to him and he promises to hear us.  We can worship and honor him and he will delight in our praises. 

Yes, thanks to the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, we no longer carry our chains.  We have been set free.  We are set free to live a Spirit-filled life here on earth and forever in heaven.

For those men who were prisoners at Alcatraz it must have been wonderful to be set free.   We, too, can share in that joy of freedom.  For once we were prisoners, but now we have been made free.  This is freedom we can truly rejoice in for we were freed from a sin-filled death.  We no longer are inmates of sin’s prison.  But Christ’s perfect life and death made us free. And now we are freed for a Spirit-filled life.  A life where we can live in thankfulness, peace, joy, and fellowship with our Savior forever. Amen.

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