- Head of School
An Easter Message: Freedom From and Freedom To
Note: You can also watch the recording of his speech here.
As you may know, each year in the spring, Hollywood hosts arguably its preeminent night, The Oscars, to honor the best films, actors and actresses from the previous year. A star-studded, glitzy night with a pregame of limousines and red carpet, viewers from around the world tune in to see celebrities, fashion, and the films that captured the attention and admiration of our society. One could argue that the Oscars are a window, or perhaps a mirror, into who we are as a society, what intrigues and excites us, what we care about, and what we hope for.
The host of the Oscars is often a comedian who entertains the audience with jokes that can poke fun or sometimes disparage the Hollywood industry and insiders.
This year’s host, comedian Chris Rock, said that actor Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia, which causes hair loss, would be a good candidate for the starring role in the next “G.I. Jane” movie. A buzz-cut Demi Moore had played the lead role in the initial movie. Hearing that, Smith, seated in the front, walked onto stage and assaulted Rock, hitting or slapping him in the face.
Many in the stunned crowd, as well as viewers at home, wondered if this were an act. It’s Hollywood, after all, the land of stories and make-believe, and Hollywood’s chief currency is attention and buzz…making a name for yourself…staying relevant and front of mind.
It wasn’t an act. Smith, though, won an Oscar later that night for his splendid acting on the big screen. And in the days to come, as his reputation took a hit more severe than the one he delivered to Rock, he recognized his failing and apologized.
Each day, we can hear or read about all manner of failings. Athletes who cheat by taking illegal performance enhancing drugs. A college coach who hits a coach from the opposing team after a loss. Parents who bribe college admission deans to secure admission to selective schools. Violence, especially against women. Men and women who misuse their positions of power or influence to enrich themselves. Discrimination, hatred and injustice. Political and other leaders who lie, cheat and steal. Abuse of children. Unjust wars. The list goes on. The failings are obvious. We can all see them.
That the world is full of failings is not surprising, given that every human being has an ingrained sin-nature. Though we are all made in the image of God and thus all have inherent worth and dignity, we also are sinful. It’s a part of our human nature as much as our DNA is part of our physical nature. And with a world of universal sinners, living together in a world that while beautifully created is itself broken, it is no wonder that fallensess and failings permeate life in general and our individual lives in particular.
What I want to talk about this morning, though, as we approach Easter, are not these obvious, public, scandalous failings, but the less obvious ones whose impact is more subtle but still powerful.
As teenagers attending McCallie, though, you can seem relatively sheltered from the crises and chaos that emanates from all the brokenness. Those are adult problems, career problems, systemic problems, global problems, future problems. You are young; Putin is thousands of miles away. You can logically say: “We have honor, truth and duty here on the Ridge. And an honor code. And brotherhood. We have chapels and Bible classes and community service and a moral and ethical framework. We stress hard work and sportsmanship and doing the right thing. We are studious and excellent and preparing for leadership roles one day. We are nice. We are good. I am good.”
For all the benefits and blessings to attending McCallie or a similar school and the backgrounds and support associated with doing so, there are blindspots as well. Jesus spoke often about the dangers and destruction of wealth, power, comfort and privilege. “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus began his Sermon on the Mount. When a person is blessed materially, when he’s comfortable, it’s hard to feel poor in spirit–to recognize one’s brokenness and neediness. It’s natural and easy for successful people to think of themselves as self-made, independent and superior. Jesus called out the powerful, the leaders, especially the religious leaders of his day, for their seeming goodness. They worshiped regularly and religiously and were rigid rule-followers. They performed well on the outside. But, on the inside, they were self-righteous and reputation-and power-obsessed. Their hearts were not filled with love for God and their neighbors.
Jesus tells them the parable of the prodigal son. A wealthy father has two sons, and the younger son wants his part of the inheritance now instead of waiting until the father dies. So he gives it to the younger son, who squanders it all in a foreign land with prostitutes, gambling and indulgent, amoral living. Having lost everything and eating only what the pigs do, he returns home, a broken man, to his father, who welcomes him home with lavish gifts and a feast. The elder brother, who had honored his father and followed all his rules, is furious at the mercy and grace shown to his broken and repentant brother. The younger brother became poor in spirit, while the elder son thought he could earn his father’s favor through his good performance and grew bitter at his father’s grace.
Jesus, like the father of the prodigal son, wants our hearts, not our achievements or even our morality. He wants us, like the younger son, to see our failings and fallenness and run to him, letting Him forgive us and embrace us and lavish us with His love.
It’s fine and well to be successful and to achieve, to be a leader, to have morals, to make good money. That’s a common trajectory of McCallie graduates. But it’s also seductive and, potentially, a subtle path to sin. One of my favorite authors and podcasters is Tim Keller, who retired a few years ago from pastoring Redeemer, a large and prominent church in New York City whose members include many hard-charging, well educated, successful, wealthy New Yorkers. Keller says that, in this demographic, many of our sins are making idols of what are otherwise good things in our lives. We make these good things the ultimate things. We put our hope and trust in our grades or resume, a job or money or love or reputation rather than in God. “If I just get into this college, or this romantic relationship, or this car, or this promotion, then I’ll be fulfilled.” So we work hard, too hard, too obsessively, too out of balance, to secure and advance these good things. We perform. We, like the older brother, do the good things. We think they will make us happy and secure and earn God’s favor, but they, eventually and inevitably, let us down, disappoint us, and leave us disoriented and depressed. We are designed for more and different than what we believe are the desires of our hearts and minds. We are therefore constantly thirsty for the next, for more, for something greater but out of our grasp.
Over and over again, God tells us worldly things will let us down, and that we can’t work our way to earn His favor. Christianity is not based on one’s performance or goodness or morality. It is grace-based…receiving not achieving. He also tells us that only Jesus will be the water from which we will never thirst again.
God knows our thirst, our longings, our hearts. He knows them better than we do. He knows what we need. He knows that, no matter how well put together we look on the outside, no matter what uniforms or suits we wear, no matter how successful or respected or beautiful we may be by worldly standards, we are, deep down, broken and lonely, desperate to be fully known and unconditionally loved. We need something this world cannot give, something we cannot give ourselves.
So God, as only He can, gave it to us, by sending His Son, Jesus, in human form, in the ultimate act of love, forgiveness and rescue. He came not as a celebrity or star with red carpet and Rolls-Royces, but as a humble and obedient servant who sacrificed Himself for us. He was mocked and hit, not at a celebrity gala, but on His way to a torturous and undeserved death. Among his final words He forgave, and He stretched out His hands not to hit but to receive nails.
He had come as a man that we might know of His love in the most personal and powerful of ways…so that God would not simply be an abstract, far-off God to us, but a God that could and would walk with humans, feeling our pain and longings and loneliness. He came that we might experience him, learn from Him, and especially learn of his love for us through the giving of his life on our behalf. He came that we would repent, even repenting from our morals and good things we subconsciously turn into idols. He came that our hearts would be utterly amazed and melted by his love and sacrifice for us, that it would transform our lives, that we wouldn’t need the worldly things that once gave us our identity and significance, that we would seek to imitate His character and actions out of our deep gratitude for His love for us.
This week, Christians celebrate Easter, which somberly remembers the death of Jesus on the cross in our places and joyfully celebrates His resurrection three days later. Though he lived a perfect human life, He took on the punishment for our sins from a holy and just God, and gave us His perfect record before God instead of our own stained one…a justification that unites us with God, that brings us into the eternal presence with God, that makes us as beloved in God’s sight as is Jesus.
But why would he do that? Because of His love for each of us; because we are His children; because a father wants an intimate relationship with his children; because when his children are are floundering, a father wants to protect them, rescue them; because a father wants the best for them; because a father rejoices in the joy of his children; because a father has an inheritance he wants to bestow upon them.
And what does God our father ask of us? Acknowledge our failings. Repent. Receive what I have done. Trust me. Love me. At the heart of the Christian faith is a human saying, “I am flawed. I have failed. I need God.” And God saying, “I love you. I forgive you.You are healed and whole, my beloved child.”
On the cross, Jesus said, “It is finished.” There is nothing for humans to do to add to what Jesus did for us. No earning or performing. No boasting. No proving or positioning ourselves. No saving ourselves. He accomplished it all.
Religions are often thought of as doing the right moral things to earn God’s favor. Not Christianity. It’s receiving and grace…getting what we don’t deserve and can’t achieve. Religions are often thought of as restrictive…predominantly a bunch of “do not” rules. Not Christianity. It’s freedom. Freedom from performing, from conforming. Freedom from goodness. Freedom from confusion. Freedom from the past. Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from our failings. Freedom to be a new person, to live with boldness and courage, with vulnerability and authenticity, with hope and optimism and joy and peace. It’s freedom from and freedom to.
God also gives us the freedom to accept or reject Him. Whether God or something else, we all have a lord or lords of our lives. We can worship our career or money, a spouse or love, our minds or individuality, our bodies or health or hobbies or happiness. You can make a god of doing good. Worshipping good things instead of God distorts and disappoints and disillusions us. You can even make yourself your own god, trying to make the world orbit around you, trying to discern and trust your own heart and feelings, thinking what you know is the ultimate truth, believing you have transcendent wisdom, trying to save yourself from pain and loss and guilt. That’s a dead end. You can create in your mind a fictional God or fabricated Jesus that is comfortable to you and that you control, but who, as Tim Keller says, won’t challenge or contradict or change you. A fictional God or Jesus is of no use of course. You can keep God far off, impersonal, ceremonial or sentimental or corporate, summoning Him, using Him on occasion when you want something or life is especially hard. That’s missing God, using God. And God won’t be used.
Or you can trust and follow an unchanging, all-powerful yet personal God who loves you unconditionally, who has demonstrated that sacrificially, and who seeks an intimate relationship with you as He guides and grows you in His image.
As you journey through life, you will have important questions to answer. What college should I attend? What career should I select? Who might I marry? What makes me happy?
The most fundamental question, though, each person must wrestle with is, “Who is this God of the Bible, and what is my personal response to Him?” You can resist or defer or suppress the question, but it will not go away. You can, at times, think you are too busy or successful or smart for God…or too sick or sinful for God. You’ll get to God later. You can seemingly be fine and good without Him…for a while. You can think, “I’ve got this figured out. I’ve got what I need. I’m good.” But life has a way of humbling us, of changing our plans and circumstances, of shaking our foundations, of turning our lives upside down. And it is most powerfully in those moments or seasons of life that our decision about God changes everything. Do we double down on our worldly desires and resources, on our talents and achievements, on our hard work and self-sufficiency? Do we medicate our anxieties, suppress our guilt and image-manage our failings? Or do we see and seek Him, surrender ourselves to His strength, trust Him, worship Him, let Him fortify and change and transform us?
What will your story be? What script will you select?
God has given us a beautiful script that is better than any Oscar-winning movie. It’s a script we couldn’t write for ourselves, because we don’t see that we need it. It’s a radical, even scandalous story by worldly standards…a story of strength through surrender rather than through self. It’s one of an amazing adventure in which a failed and flawed man is transformed into a redeemed man, with a new identity. So secure is he in God’s love for him, so grateful is he for it, that he sheds his smallness and insecurities. His fears fade. He trades pettiness for purpose. He lives with a spirit of gratitude and generosity. He enjoys giving and receiving unconditional love. He repents readily and regularly and forgives frequently and freely. He encourages and builds others up. He works to make society just, using his resources for the betterment of others. He serves the sick and poor, full of compassion and mercy. He rests. He is strong and confident yet tender and humble. He speaks the truth in love, and his love is far-reaching and radical. He is a transformed man, transformed from the inside out by God’s grace. No matter the challenges or circumstances he faces, he finds peace and joy. As Paul writes from prison in Philippians chapter 4, “Rejoice in the Lord always, and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
I wish each of you peace and joy–the profound peace and deep joy that comes only from God…God up close, God hands-on, God personally.