There is a lovely phrase in the 26th chapter of the Book of Leviticus (an Old Testament book that is too often skipped over). The focus of that chapter is God’s reminder to Israel that in obedience to his word, there was great blessing to be received. If they were to refrain from idol worship but were to hold the Sabbath in reverence, they would discover the Lord raining down upon them gifts of abundance in harvest, peace in the land and success in all their doings. God would place his dwelling among them and would walk among them and be their God and Israel would be his people.
The promise of blessing then ends with God’s reaffirmation that it was he, the Lord, who had brought them out of Egypt so that they would no longer be slaves to the Egyptians. It was he, the Lord, who had broken “the bars of your yoke and enabled you to walk with heads held high.”
What a glorious metaphor for the freedom which can only be found within the grace of our God! For like slaves bent and burdened under physical yokes with which they carried their loads of brick, so any who have carried the weight of whatever things have imprisoned us, know only too well what it is to be bent over spiritually with guilt and shame. We hobble under the burden of our sin, our addictions, our anxieties and our anger, our unwillingness to forgive those who have hurt us and our inability to forgive ourselves for the hurts and failures we’ve caused. The pain, lies, wounds and sins of our past are this vast encumbrance under which we stagger and strain. Like hunchbacks perpetually cursed to stare only downwards at the dirt, we crippled, broken slaves to sin might yearn to stand straight and tall, with heads held high, and taste the freedom of being slaves no longer, weighed down no longer, imprisoned no longer to those taskmasters of shame that care only to double our burdens.
We were not made by God to go through life bent over and shackled as slaves. We were made to walk in freedom with heads held high in the embrace of his delight and blessing. We were made to be creatures who could look up to our God with no shame (Genesis 2:25), but our human sin, rebellion and pride has left us otherwise. As Paul noted in his great letter to the church in Rome, we are “unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do…. It is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me…. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul answered his own question then, as he gave thanks to God for the gift of Jesus Christ.
One of the great words that the church once used to describe Jesus was that of “Emancipator.” That is, as Isaiah prophesied, Jesus is the One who sets the captives free, liberates the imprisoned, gives sight to the blind, brings good news to the poor and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favour.
In the ancient world where slavery was a major institution in society, the Emancipator was a person of noble intent who would grant a slave manumission or full freedom. Some emancipators would purchase slaves for the simple purpose of giving freedom. That is what Jesus has done for us before God. He has quite literally paid the price of for our freedom and ransomed us with his own blood. He has taken upon himself our punishment and whatever debt we had owed, he has caused to be wiped away through his own self-sacrifice. He has set us free, at ultimate cost to himself. Again, as Paul told the Galatians, it was for freedom that we have been set free through the mercy and grace of our saviour.
I think it was C.S. Lewis who complained that Christians were altogether a much too gloomy lot when one considered the magnificent freedom and grace that has been bestowed upon us in Jesus. We have been given release from being slaves bent over with sin and shame, to stand tall, head held high, in the full glory and wonder of a new relationship with God. Yet too often we refuse to embrace the freedom and go plodding about as if new life in Christ was still something we had to force and forge for ourselves, instead of embrace and celebrate. It’s been said that when God forgives our sins and wipes clean our past, he takes all those ugly things and casts them into the deepest part of the ocean, and then posts a sign that says “No Fishing.” Yet we will not leave those things alone but go dredging back into the depths to find our filthy rags, as if we cannot imagine our identity as anything other than helpless slaves. How terribly tragic! For Christ did not suffer the cross that I should continue to live in relentless sorrow for the past; if I do, all I will accomplish is to completely miss the wonder of the life for which he died to set me free.
I praise God that I can stand tall in the freedom won for me upon the Cross. Yet if anything must be confessed is my failure fully to understand, revel in and receive all the grace and power and possibility that the Lord wants me to know. I praise God that he has set me free (if the Son has set me free, than I am free indeed), but to how much do I still cling to my past rather than to Jesus? While he may have swung wide open the prison door, how much do I still huddle in the corner of my prison, afraid to rise and walk out into the light of the glory of his mercy and love? Too many of us still try to labour under the burdens of grief and guilt which we will not let go of, though the Saviour has done all so that the yokes of our sin and past could be cast off forever.
There is no sin or slavery from which Christ’s saving grace cannot set us free. There is no addiction from which his power will not redeem. There is no dark shame of our past into which the light of his love cannot or will not shine with liberating joy.
I find it interesting that in several of the stories of miraculous healing, Jesus bids the one who had been crippled to rise. I like to think that he means they were to stand tall, with heads held high. I believe the Lord desires no less for you or for me.