Today’s scripture reading—and indeed today’s topic—hinges on two concepts: liberation and joy. And in these verses from Isaiah, the two are deeply interconnected. But to see that more clearly, it might help to explore the concept of liberation in order to find ways of seeing ourselves in it.
For the ancient Israelites—and as imagined here in Isaiah—liberation is a very concrete concept. The geography of their existence has been almost constantly been marked by war and conquest. When Isaiah speaks of God “[shattering] the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor,” he isn’t just using metaphorical language. He is speaking of the concrete realities of their conquest and exile, wherein they were literally chained together and treated like animals.
Amos (4:2) speaks of the people of Israel being led into exile like a stringer of fish, and based on the artwork and writings from that time, this seems historically accurate—the conquering Assyrians literally put hooks in the people’s jaws and chained them together.
Psalm 137 cries out in despair as the newly exiled Israelites are taunted and tormented [Psalm 137:1, 3]. This provokes among the most profound emotion and painful anger recorded anywhere in the bible [Psalm 137:8-9].
To a people who have known such devastation, liberation—the arrival of freedom—is a nearly impossible hope. And even though we—unlike many around the world today—have not experienced anything like that of the ancient Israelites, we do feel the rousing call of freedom beckoning to us.
As Americans, we recognize that freedom is the cornerstone on which our nation was built. While ostensibly those colonists resisted “taxation without representation,” there were other dimensions of their military occupation by a foreign power that no doubt felt even more oppressive. Each of the first ten amendments to the Constitution addresses some area of injustice and oppression brought about by the British:
Freedom to worship without governmental interference (First Amendment).
Freedom to form a military to protect themselves from outside invaders (Second Amendment).
Freedom from being forced to house and feed members of a foreign army (Third Amendment).
Freedom from the government seizing their property without due process (Fourth Amendment).
And so on…
As Baptists, our way of faith has historically been built on four freedoms and the responsibilities they demand of us:
the freedom and responsibility to make our own decisions of faith as individuals
the freedom and responsibility of each person to read and interpret the bible
the freedom and responsibility of churches to embody faith as they best see fit without interference from any religious body
the freedom and responsibility of individuals and churches to embody faith without governmental interference
Liberation & Slavery
Yet even beyond all this, somewhere in the fabric of our being, we comprehend freedom as a necessary and vital component for human life as God built us to live it out. I think that is why images of liberation resonate so deeply with us [Braveheart], even though most of us have never known oppression of the sort that the ancient Israelites experienced.
But perhaps liberation is not only a concept for the movies.
Perhaps liberation is the impossible hope of others in far-flung places around the globe.
Perhaps liberation is desperately needed for those who suffer injustice and prejudice in our own nation.
Perhaps liberation is yearned for by those in our own community, who struggle against systems and powers that hold them back and prevent their “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Perhaps liberation is even lacking in our own lives in ways that we were taught to not see.
We think we are free. We think we have autonomy. We think we can do what we want. We think we can make our lives whatever we want them to be.
But we are wrong. These are oversimplifications at best and outright deceptions at worst.
We are slaves.
We are slaves to commerce.
We are slaves to consumption.
We are slaves to others and slaves to ourselves.
We are slaves to our employers and slaves to our families.
Now when we volunteer our freedom out of love for another, that is a precious gift—much like the gift Jesus offers to us on account of volunteering his own freedom out of love for us. But in many of these situations (maybe even most?), we have not volunteered our freedom; it has been taken from us.
These are among the “powers and principalities” that Paul references in Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)—the forces in this world that enslave and corrupt and destroy. We can talk about these things as sin, of course; but too often we think of sin only in individual terms. The fact is, sin takes on a life of its own once we choose to bring it into the world.
James writes about this in his letter in the New Testament, describing the process of sin and its outcome. He uses the language of reproduction to illustrate this cycle:
“But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” (James 1:14–15 NRSV)
First some sort of desire rises in us—this is not yet sin, but can be temptation.
But that desire is then somehow fed or fueled—it grows into a “lure” that “entices us,” which is effectively the moment of conception in this process.
We ultimately birth sin into the world when we embody or otherwise act out this enticing desire that we have nurtured within ourselves.
But then—perhaps apart from us, perhaps with our help—that sin continues to grow.
And that last part is the most chilling to me: sin has its own ability to reproduce—it “gives birth to death.”
When the sin that humanity has born into the world begins reproducing itself, it takes on the form of those “powers and principalities” that Paul was talking about…… those systems and structures in our world that prevent the abundant life into which God desires we live.
But what I find both deeply tragic and nearly beyond belief is the way that we so easily become deceived into believing more in the goodness of the “powers and principalities” that enslave us and others than we do in the goodness of the God who brings liberation from them. It’s as though the Church of Jesus Christ—or at least we humans in general—have developed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome while living in this broken world.
Stockholm Syndrome describes a phenomenon wherein captives begin to identify with their captors to the point that they resist rescue. While it gets its name from a hostage situation that resulted from a bungled bank heist, we seem to see this more often with kidnappings and human trafficking situations.
As one relevant illustration, consider the tragic story of Patty Hearst. A 19-year-old actress and granddaughter of a wealthy publisher, Patty was kidnapped and held hostage by a domestic terrorist group beginning in 1974. She was held in a closet, blindfolded and tied up. She was repeatedly assaulted, both physically and sexually. And yet she quickly became sympathetic with her captors. She became one of them—quite literally: taking on a new name, robbing banks, and even denouncing her own family. Nineteen months after her abduction, Patty was arrested and later sentenced to 35 years for the crimes she committed as part of the group.
Now Patty’s story may not be the best illustration of Stockholm Syndrome, but I do think it is illustrative of our experiences in the world.
We have before us a life of promise and purpose, full of the possibilities that God’s freedom opens up for us.
And in a moment of weakness, of guard let down, we are captured by this world—held against our will by its forces and systems and structures.
We find ourselves forced by the need to survive to play by its rules instead of living out God’s priorities
In the process, we ourselves are harmed and harmed greatly by the very systems and structures we are coerced into becoming a part of.
And yet somehow, along the way, there is a turning in us. We begin to think that not only are these systems and structures good for us (despite the harm they have in fact caused us), but that these systems and structures are what God wants too.
And so we participate in the reinforcement of the powers of this world against God, and we do it in God’s name.
We are enslaved, brainwashed, and as much in need of liberation as any person we might imagine.
The good news here—no, the great news—is that God has always been in the liberation business. And if we somehow missed the hundreds of references in the Old Testament to the liberation and the freedom that God works to bring into our lives, Jesus outlines it in bold through his life.
I remind you that the Gospel of Luke frames Jesus’ whole life through his theme verses from Isaiah 61:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18–19 NRSV)
Liberation from poverty.
Liberation from captivity.
Liberation from blindness.
Liberation from oppression and injustice.
Liberation from economic enslavement—the year of Jubilee.
This is what Jesus is about, and Jesus—more clearly and certainly than anything else—reveals what God is about.
If we would take a moment and imagine what such liberation would feel like to us, we would know—and know certainly—that liberation brings joy. It is almost involuntary the way that joy erupts out of us when we realize our liberation.
There are a good deal of the Psalms that encapsulate that moment of deliverance by our loving God—an outburst of joy, spontaneous praise, an instinctive utterance of hope—all rising up because freedom has arrived.
I think that’s why joy factors in so heavily in our brief scripture reading:
“You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest,
as people exult when dividing plunder.” (Isaiah 9:3 NRSV)
Liberation Changes our Walk
Jesus is the Liberator-Who-Brings-Joy—and both the liberation and the joy cannot help but completely change our lives and our orientation.
Quite like God announces to the ancient Israelites back in Leviticus 26:
“I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be their slaves no more; I have broken the bars of your yoke and made you walk erect.” (Leviticus 26:13 NRSV)
Experiencing this liberation changes the way we walk. We walk “erect,” as God offers here in Leviticus. Not stooped over, not sneaking around, not crushed by the weight of the world—but upright, with confidence, and free.
Those of us redeemed by Christ have been set free—that is the heart of the good news. As Paul urges in Galatians 5:1:
“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1 NRSV)
He continues a little further down:
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Galatians 5:13–14 NRSV)
When we experience the freedom brought to us by the Liberator-Who-Brings-Joy, it changes the way we walk…… the way we live.
No longer do we manipulate freedom to our own advantage.
No longer do we insist on our rights against the rights of others.
No longer do we embody the primal urges of mutually-assured-destruction that run so rampant in this world.
Instead, our life—our walk—is characterized by love.
Our walk is characterized by pursuing the wellbeing of others.
Our walk is characterized by hearing and considering what others know they need.
Liberation changes our walk.
Liberation Changes Our Experience of God
Experiencing this liberation changes not just our “walk” (our relationship with each other), but it changes how we understand God.
To the ancient Israelites and through the prophet Ezekiel, God spoke, saying:
“They shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them.” (Ezekiel 34:27 NRSV)
That liberation is even possible is a testimony to the present reality of God and of God’s heart of love.
When we narrowly escape through the clutches of danger, or hardship, or even death, we can only reckon that God is behind our deliverance.
And if God is behind our deliverance, we must conclude that God wanted us to experience liberation.
And if God wants us to experience liberation, than what else can we imagine other than the fact that God really does care for us, and wants the best for us, and is at work to help us achieve a quality of life that would be otherwise impossible to achieve.
This, then, is why liberation brings joy.
It is more than relief at escaping bad circumstances.
It is more than happiness at our outcome being changed.
It is more than the surge of adrenaline at coming out on top.
It is because with each liberating moment—large or small—we intuit how deeply God cares for us: just as we are, no matter what.
The early church of the New Testament understood this well. That’s why they’re always going on about grace—and especially the grace of Jesus Christ.
Grace means you don’t have to change for God to love you.
Grace means you don’t have to become someone else before God gives you permission to live.
Grace means you are fully accepted by God, just as you are.
God does not love you less if you do not change enough, or if you are not good enough, or even if you do not accept yourself. Though it is hard to believe in my own sinfulness, I am convinced that God loves the Adolf Hitlers of the world no less on their dying day than on the day of their creation. How much more you who have done less damage to creation?
Isaiah says: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2 NRSV). As we discussed last week, I believe this light is Jesus.
We are those who walk in darkness, often unaware of our own blindness.
Yet to us Jesus has appeared, illuminating for us and all of history the truth of life and love and God.
There is no darkness so deep that the light of Christ cannot penetrate it.
There is no sorrow so complete that the peace of Christ cannot comfort us.
There is no wound so painful that the balm of Christ cannot heal us.
There is no bondage so great that the liberation of Christ cannot free us…… and lead us into joy.
Thanks be to God, and to the Liberator-Who-Brings-Joy, who frees us from the enslavements of this world and enables us to discover life abundant.