Welcome Home! Free to Truly Be Yourself
Christ the King, Palm Coast, FL ~ Pastor Jay Zahn ~ John 8:31-36 ~ Sunday, November 3, 2019
I’m going to do something I never thought I’d do. I’m going to open today’s Reformation sermon by talking about the Kardashians. Well, a Kardashian by marriage. Kim Kardashian’s husband, rapper Kanye West, just released a brand new album, entitled, “Jesus is King.” It’s a stunning title from West who acknowledged in a recent interview: “I’ve spread a lot of things. There was a time I was letting you know what high fashion had done for me, I was letting you know what the Hennessey [type of liquor] had done for me.” But in this new album Kanye West’s message has taken a drastically different direction. In his own words: “But now I’m letting you know what Jesus has done for me, and in that I’m no longer a slave, I’m a son now, a son of God. I’m free,” he said. Kanye is confessing that he is experiencing what Jesus promised in today’s Reformation Gospel: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31,32).
There are plenty of Christians and non-Christians who are questioning the legitimacy and wondering about the longevity of Kanye’s spiritual liberation. It’s a risky career move. He runs the risk of alienating many fans who were drawn to him for the kind of message he used to spread. Critiques and criticisms abound. And if all of that is surprising, it shouldn’t be! Those who follow after Jesus can expect to face and feel the kinds of things Jesus himself did. For example, think about how Jesus and his message of truth and freedom were met with skepticism and rejection by the crowd with whom he first shared it 2 millennia ago! Jesus spoke truth to the crowd around him and promised that this truth would set them free. But among those who first heard it, they were triggered by what he said. The most vocal were shocked and offended by what he was saying, and they weren’t afraid to let Jesus know it either: “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be free?” (v. 33). Their response is combative, but it’s clear they’re listening!
What I mean is to take seriously Jesus' claims about setting us free means also taking seriously our natural condition of being enslaved by powers greater than ourselves. But Jesus’ audience just can’t come to grips with that, nor do they want to. The crowd was serious in their insistence that they were free, even though, ironically, Israel at that moment in time was under Roman occupation and control. Roman soldiers were likely posted among them as they argued with Jesus about how free they were.
It’s a powerful demonstration of how delusional people can be about the reality of their situation even when the reality of it is right in front of their own eyes! And we’re not immune. In fact, as Americans we might be especially susceptible to such delusions. In our country that recognizes freedom as an inalienable right, it’s not a particularly popular message to proclaim that in the unseen world even Americans are actually controlled by forces greater than they are, is it? In the land of the free, we are raised on the idea that we can do and be anything we want as long as we put our minds to it. Such a cultural environment doesn’t exactly prepare us to see much less confess that the reality of life is either we live in service to God or we are living as slaves to sin, right? Truthfully, to American ears slavery equates with being held against your will. Which helps explain why slavery to sin is actually so all-enslaving. You see the power of sin is so powerful that it convinces its captives that sin is what they really want. So sin convinces those under its control to believe that freedom means being able to sin without restraint and free from criticism.
That means slavery to sin runs deeper than committing sinful acts. The danger of sin is drastic. So powerful is sin that it actually dares to define our very identity. What I mean is that sin works to make us believe that sin in general or certain sins in specific are actually what makes us who we are. Jesus warns of this very thing when he says: “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (v. ).
One of the reasons Kanye West’s confession is so compelling is the way he talks about this reality in his own life. He said in a recent interview: "Nebuchadnezzar was the king of Babylon, and he looked at his kingdom and said, "I did this" "Sounds kind of similar, right? I'm standing on the top of the mountain talking about [his 2013 album and tour] saying 'I did this. I am a god.'" https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-50178788 But he’s calling attention to that now, not as a boast, but as a confession. “I thought I was the god of culture,” he said, “but culture was my god.” In other words he had become enslaved by his own fame and ego!
I’m going to do another thing that I never thought I’d do in a sermon. Connecting Kanye West with Martin Luther. I’m doing it because there are interesting parallels in the faith journey of both men. Kanye’s coming to Christ and Martin Luther’s awakening in the faith that launched the Reformation is something a writer for the journal First Things picks up on in a recent article: “To hear Kanye tell it, his conversion, like Luther’s, was precipitated by crisis: His life was in a shambles, he realized being a good person was insufficient grounds for salvation, and this ultimately turned him to Christ.” (https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/10/on-the-freedom-of-a-christian-rapper) Like Kanye, Luther believed his path to freedom would come by concentrating on his efforts to be someone, achieving significance by comparing himself to other people, but it wasn’t helping him. Listen to how Luther himself explains it: “For a long time I went astray [in the monastery] and didn’t know what I was about. To be sure, I knew something, but I didn’t know what it was until I came to the text in Romans 1: , ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’ That text helped me … when I discovered the proper distinction – namely, that the law [what God expects of us] is one thing and the gospel [how God fulfills his expectations of us by sending his Son to stand in as our perfect substitute] another…” When Luther grasped the Gospel’s clear message he found freedom, not by his own achievement, but as a gift from God through Christ. In one of the songs on his newest album [Selah], Kanye proclaims the Gospel’s liberating message, something he has come to experience personally, singing: “Ye should be made free, John 8:36/ To whom the Son set free is free indeed / He saved a wretch like me.”
The quest for freedom is a theme found throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. Jesus came to bring freedom, but his message of freedom wasn’t primarily political, arguing for people’s right to elect their own leaders. His focus wasn’t essentially economic either, advocating the merits of free trade. Hear this too, it wasn’t his mission to proclaim personal independence, to promote the right to make your own decisions and choose your own path in life, to do whatever you want, whenever you want. If you’ve been listening carefully to what Jesus actually says you can see why he wouldn’t, why he couldn’t encourage you to pursue the desires of your fallen heart. Encouraging people to pursue sin isn’t freedom. Encouraging people to pursue sin is really encouraging people to enslave themselves, to invite sin to keep them under its power, captive to its control and its consequences.
Jesus comes to bring spiritual freedom. Jesus came to set us free from being held captive by our own destructive desires. He came to free us from sin’s power, so that following God and his will for our lives is something we can do. It’s something we are freed to do. It is something we gladly do. I’d like to use one last example from the life of Kanye West. Until his conversion to Christianity his rhymes were routinely raunchy. In the last track of his album, “Ye,” in 2018, he is haunted by both the regret about the lifestyle he’s promoted and the emptiness of his own life. In the song he prays: Father forgive me, I’m scared of the karma / Cause now I see women as something to nurture, not something to conquer.” In a recent interview Kanye gives greater context to that confession. He says: “Some people drown themselves in drugs, and I drowned myself in my addiction [sex].” And that is all too common. People sin and they try to soothe the pain, numb the guilt, and hide their shame through self-medication. But their choices for dealing with the pain, the guilt, the shame don’t take those things away. They often compound the problem.
What’s happening in Kanye’s life right now, though, is something really uncommon, something that gets real attention. That same interview revealed that West made some notably different requests of his creative team during the production of his latest album, “Jesus is King.” Billboard magazine reports: “[He] asked others to fast during portions of creating and also not partake in any premarital sex at times, which he knew would receive some blowback once it became public. It seemed as if he wanted the creative process to maintain its purity while the team locked in and built camaraderie. ‘When people pray together and fast together, the power is increased,’ said [West].” That’s real freedom. Changing from an empty lifestyle to one that brings fulfillment. Recognizing what he promoted in the past own leads to greater brokenness. See what God says, the kind of living God directs, seeing it for what it really is. A life that brings fulfillment, satisfaction, wholeness, and health. And the freedom he enjoys is so good that he can’t help but want to promote it to others too! That’s freedom. Real freedom to do good even when culture criticizes even mocks him for it.
This is the freedom that Christ came to bring, freedom to be honest and open about the ways in which sin has held you captive, a captivity that runs deeper than just what you’ve done but also in what you’ve willingly desired. Freedom to be that kind of transparent comes from confidence that Christ loves you and accepts you no matter how wrong you’ve been, no matter how much damage you’ve done, no matter how far you’ve deviated from the will and ways of God! Such freedom cleanses your soul, revives your heart, and renews your mind. What results is a new you! The best you! The truest you that exercises freedom not as a cover for selfishness but as the motivation to want what God wants and the muscle to willingly choose what is good and God-pleasing; even if, especially when the world sees it as strange and out of touch. That’s real freedom. That’s the freedom Christ proclaims. That’s the freedom you have in Christ.
The reason I shared examples from Kanye West’s life as well as Martin Luther’s life in today’s message is to get you thinking about our own life. What do their examples inspire in you? Can I share some suggestions? Promote some possibilities? In the freedom of forgiveness as a free person in Christ, freely place not just your life, but your very self, your identity, your understanding of who you truly are, freely place everything you are in Jesus’ hands! Throw off the shackles of feeling like you need to hide the struggles of your heart and instead find help, strength, and freedom in Christ and your Christian brothers and sisters by freely sharing what’s really going on in your own heart and receiving with an open heart the truth that will set you free! Step out from under the enslaving desire to live life on your own terms to freely pursue living it on Christ’s! Exercise your freedom in Christ and choose the unconventional life of faith rather than the predictable path of popular acceptance!
Friends, this is the freedom Christ lived, died, rose, and now rules on high to gift to you. Embrace this freedom by embracing who you truly are in Jesus! You are a disciple of God. Even better, you are a child of God. You are part of God’s household and share in the glories of God’s infinite inheritance. And what you have, Jesus wants you to keep, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31,32). In Christ, you are free! Yes, this is who you are! Let the truth of your freedom ring by knowing Christ’s Word, holding on to his teaching, and living out the freedom he died and rose to secure for you! Amen.