This is the runner-up entry in the Sermon of the Year competition held by Preach Magazine and London School of Theology.
Let me set the scene for you. You're in your neighbour's bathroom, you shut the door to take a shower, taking note of the fact that there's no lock on the door, and then 10 minutes later when you try to leave, the door handle doesn't work. You're stuck. Trapped. It's happened to us all!
No? Just me then...?
This happened to me a few years ago while I was dog-sitting. Unscrewing the handle from the door with a pair of tweezers revealed the issue. The inside of the handle was disconnected from the bit of metal keeping the door closed.
Disconnection. That was my problem. That's what was keeping me captive.
Captivity takes many forms. It can be illness, it can be people, it can be possessions or addictions – it can even be our own thoughts. Whatever it may be, there are things in our lives that keep us from living life to the full, that keep us from living our lives the way God intended.
God doesn't want us to live in captivity. How do I know this? Because of Jesus.
Jesus came 'to proclaim good news to the poor', to 'proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind' and 'to set the oppressed free' (Luke 4: 18-19). He came so that '[we] may have life, and have it to the full' (John 10:10).
And did he do those things? Well, let's take a look at the evidence. The blind saw, the lame walked, the infirm and the sick were healed, the demon-possessed were released, and the dead were raised to life. I'd say that's pretty conclusive!
But Jesus didn't stop there. Receiving freedom from Jesus was not for the lucky few who lived in his local area 2,000 years ago. When Jesus stretched out his arms on the cross and died, he broke all the chains, past and present and future. He broke the ultimate chain – the power of death and sin – from us, so that we could live with God forever, free from pain and sadness and separation.
Because that's what began all this business of captivity: separation from God, right back at the beginning, in Eden. We chose that separation, and as a result, we began to forge our own chains. We yoked ourselves in slavery to sin. To selfishness. We set ourselves up as gods and decided that we knew best how to look after ourselves. I will let you in on a secret: we're not actually very good at that at all.
Disconnection from God causes a whole heap of problems. In Romans 8, Paul talks about living two different ways. One way is to 'live according to the flesh'. The other is to 'live in accordance with the Spirit'. You can either live disconnected from God, or you can live in connection with God. One way brings death. The other brings 'life and peace'.
What springs to your mind when you think of freedom? For some reason, whenever I think of being set free, I either immediately think of the song by Queen, or, perhaps more so, I think of the 2000 film, Chicken Run. A farm full of clay-mation chickens dream of the perfect place, where they can roam free and reproduce and lay eggs at their leisure, and not at the demand of the terrifying farmer's wife, Mrs Tweedy.
The chickens want to be free to be able to do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want.
Is that God's definition of freedom, though? I'm not so sure.
'Okay, Rebecca,' you might say, 'so God sets you free from your sin. What do you do next? Where do you go from there?'
And I would reply, 'Well, you run to God.'
And you might then say, 'But what's the difference? Isn't that just running into another form of slavery? All you're doing is exchanging slave masters. What's so good about that?'
Good question. The answer to that lies in Paul's very subtle language in Romans 8:5.
'Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.'
'According to', and 'in accordance with'. Two very similar phrases, yet with two very different meanings. If you live 'according to' something, then you live by its rules. You take everything it says as fact. It says jump, you ask how high. You keep in line with it. You live under its rule. That is what it's like when we let our 'flesh' dictate to us. We live 'according to' our own desires and rules and pleasures – things that grow to become out of control, and ultimately consume us.
However, to live 'in accordance with' something is very different. To live 'in accordance with the Spirit' means that you live in agreement together. You work in tandem. Relationship with God is not a dictatorship – it's a partnership. That is how God intended it from the beginning. He intended us to work with him to care for the creation He provided. This is what we see when we look at Israel's history throughout the Old Testament. Even if God's people went astray, we see individuals who partnered with God and saw and did amazing things. Partnering with God brings 'life in all its fullness'.
If partnership with God sounds good to you, you might wonder how to connect. And that's where Jesus comes in. Jesus came, not only to break our chains and free us from what holds us captive, but He also came to restore our connection with God.
In Romans 8:3, Paul says, 'For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering'. Amazing. We cannot break our own chains. And even though we deliberately shunned our connection with God, he chose to restore it. He saw our pain. He saw what our separation does to us. And he loved us so, so much, that he chose to come to earth as one of us – to live amongst us in the brokenness of humanity, so that he could break our chains, bind our wounds, and bring us home.
If you want to connect with God, start with Jesus. Jesus is an exact representation of God, because he is God! Connection to Jesus in the gospels brought freedom to so many people. (Just read them if you don't believe me.) Connecting with Jesus is so powerful that he was able to heal one Roman soldier's servant with just his words! Those people began to live in the fullness of life that Jesus promised.
When we live in connection with God, when we live 'in accordance with the Spirit', when we are 'led by the Spirit of God', we 'are the children of God'. The Spirit we received does not make us slaves, so that we live in fear or captivity again. When we are connected to God, we are his children. And God wants the very best for his children.
Where do you long to see freedom in your life?
There is no gap too wide that Jesus cannot bridge it. There is no chain too strong that he cannot break it. There is no pit too deep that he cannot lift you out of it.
Freedom comes when we know Christ. And he is reaching out his hand to you today. Will you take it?
Rebecca Coatsworth is a copywriter for a Christian charity.
The 10 best entries in the Sermon of the Year competition have been printed in a book, 'Be Set Free', available from CPO.