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March 12th, 2018

God loves you and wants to free you from bondage.

Luke 13:10-17

 

Come, Holy Spirit

In honor of Billy Graham, the sermon title today is “What Would Billy Say?” As I listened to and read his sermons these past two weeks, I decided to preach this story in the way that I think Billy Graham might have preached it – not his gestures or accent, but his content and passion.

I am 98% sure Billy Graham would not like my sermon title. He also may have been uncomfortable with some aspects of what has seemed like a cultish response in the week after his death. However, his family and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association rightly captured this historic moment as his final crusade.

Some of you will ask me after this sermon, “Why don’t you preach like that all the time?” My answer is, “I’m not Billy Graham. I’m not even an evangelist.” Pastoral preaching is teaching Scripture week by week to edify and equip the saints. Evangelistic preaching calls for repentance and faith with a public commitment.

The invitation I will give at the end of the message is real. When people attended Billy Graham crusades, they knew there would be an opportunity for public commitment at the end of the service. I’m letting you know that as well in advance.

In many churches, each worship service concludes with an altar call. That’s not true here at Corinth, for two reasons. I’ll share the second reason at the end of the sermon, but the first is that altar calls are not very common in the Reformed church tradition. Billy Graham understood that denominations differ on some issues. He made light of it. When he preached in Charlotte in 1958, he said that he had been accused of trying to make Baptists out of everyone. So he told the story of a little boy who tried to sell kittens on the street. “Baptist kittens for sale!” he shouted, and no one bought one. So the next day he shouted, “Methodist kittens for sale!” Someone said, “These are the same kittens as yesterday. Why do you call them Methodist kittens today?” The boy answered, “Well today, they have their eyes open.” He went on to say, “It doesn’t matter if you’re Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic or Jew. If you’ve never had an encounter with Christ, make sure today.”

Also, the preaching today is real. I may borrow some of Billy Graham’s words and ideas, but I’m not going to say anything I don’t believe. Billy would often refer to current events, and I will do that as well. His death and funeral were “current events.” But if I tell you a first-person story, it’s my story – not one of Billy Graham’s. Let us pray.

“Holy Spirit, come in this place today. Convict us of sin, righteousness, and judgment. Bring us to the cross of Jesus Christ, for it is in his name we pray, Amen.”

Freedom

This morning I want to speak to you on the subject of freedom. In America we all think we know what freedom is, and we demand it. Webster’s Dictionary says freedom is “the absence of necessity, coercion, or restraint in choice or action.” Freedom, we think, means doing exactly what I want.

The good news today is that God wants you to be free. Jesus said, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”[1] The Bible says, “It is for freedom that Christ as set us free.”[2] True and lasting freedom comes only through Jesus Christ.

I invite you this morning to turn in your Bibles to one of the great freedom stories in the life of Jesus. It’s found in Luke chapter 13, beginning in verse 10. In this story we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue. It was Jesus’ regular habit to attend public worship, even as a boy and a young man, long before he became famous. He went to listen and learn and pray. Even the Son of God prioritized public worship with God’s people. If you’re not going to church regularly, you are not following Jesus.

As his reputation spread, when Jesus went to a synagogue, he was often invited to speak, as he was on this occasion. We’re not told what he said that day, but it was probably what he said most often: “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” At the beginning of this same chapter, Luke says it twice. He’s asked about the senseless murder of some Galileans while they worshiping. They were killed by Pontius Pilate, yes, that same Pilate who presided over Jesus’ trial. Jesus responded that those people didn’t die because they were worse sinners than anyone else. He added, “But unless you repent, you too will likewise perish.”[3] Jesus mentioned eighteen other people who had died in an industrial accident when the tower of Siloam fell on them. He said they didn’t die because they were more guilty than everyone else. “But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

When someone dies, don’t focus on whether they deserved to die. Focus on your own death and what happens next. If you don’t repent, you will perish. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”[4] The Bible says “It is appointed unto men once to die, and after that the judgment.”[5] Every death is a reminder for those of us who still have time that we must repent or we will perish.

I imagine a packed house that day as Jesus called them to repent. In that crowd were curious people, who had heard he preached with authority and healed the sick. There were antagonistic people, who had come to disrupt and distract. There were many people who went to synagogue every week only out of habit. They were not really expecting or even wanting anything unusual to happen. They were probably irritated that with this crowd they couldn’t sit in their usual seat.

Behold the bondage

One woman in the crowd that day was different from all the rest. Luke wants you to notice her. Luke, the writer of this gospel, is a physician who pays attention to physical characteristics and details about physical problems. Dr. Luke also likes to tell stories about women. Why? Because women in Luke’s day were often overlooked, undervalued. People thought religion was a man’s domain. The Gospel does change everything for a man who accepts Christ by faith, but Luke wants you to know the Gospel is equally a woman-thing. The gospel would never have reached around the world without women who believed, women who prayed, women who nurtured, women who preached. Billy Graham said his daughter Ann was the best preacher in the family. I would never have done what I’ve done without the teaching and prayers of my mother. If you were here last week, you heard that my wife Linda is not only my advisor and encourager, but my partner and colleague.

Luke wants you to notice this woman. Verse 11 in the King James Version reads, “And behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years.” “Behold her,” Luke says. Nobody else who came to church that day thought she was significant. Luke says, “Look at her.” She “was bowed together and could in no wise lift herself up.” Luke wants you to behold the bondage.

Dr. Luke understands that this woman’s spinal injury or disease meant that she was in constant pain. I’ve had just enough pain in my neck and back to know that when the spinal cord is compressed, you can’t sleep, you can’t work, you can’t sit, you can’t stand, you can’t think. Everywhere she walked, she looked down at the ground. She couldn’t enjoy a normal conversation. She couldn’t make eye contact with people. She never knew when someone might be getting ready to harm her or rob her.

This woman was in bondage, and as a result she was isolated. She was lonely. She was a nobody that nobody noticed. She shuffled her way slowly into the building and tried to hide her gasps of pain. When people are in pain, they usually don’t want people to know, and sometimes they think if they try to act normal, nobody will notice.

Her bondage was physical. It was emotional. But it was also spiritual. In verse 16 Jesus says it was “Satan (who) hath bound (her), lo (there’s that “behold” word again), these eighteen years.” “Look at her and think about this,” Jesus says. “For eighteen years Satan has kept her in bondage.”

Don’t get lost in the question of whether sickness or disease is caused by Satan or sin or something else. In the ninth chapter of John’s gospel, we find a man who was born blind, and his disciples asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus said, “Neither one, but to demonstrate the power of God.”[6] Whatever your situation, God wants to demonstrate his power by freeing you.

There are many people who are blind or disabled or sick, but they live in freedom. Fanny Crosby was blinded by a doctor’s error shortly after birth, and yet she wrote over 8,000 hymns expressing her freedom in Christ. She wrote, “Perfect submission, all is at rest. I in my Savior am happy and blest.” Fanny Crosby was blind and free because she knew Christ.

The woman who came to the synagogue in Luke 13 was disabled and in bondage, two separate things. She could have been disabled and free, but she wasn’t. Satan kept her spiritually bound for eighteen years.

There are many types of bondage.

There is the bondage of addiction. Addiction is on the rise in our day. Every day, 115 Americans die after overdosing on opioids. The economic burden of opioid addiction alone in the U.S. is $78.5 billion a year. Addiction is one of the worst kinds of bondage because it feels at first like freedom. I’m free to take a second glance at that pornographic web site. I’m free to take that first drink at a teenage party. I’m free to get that prescription for a pain killer or a sleeping pill. I’m free to buy that lottery ticket. But soon my “freedom” has turned into bondage because I need more and more of whatever it is – sex or alcohol or drugs or gambling or shopping or food or work– to make me feel as free as I did the first time I tried it. Addiction is a terrible burden, an awful bondage.

There is the bondage of fear. Many people are living in fear these days. We read about these shootings in public places and especially in schools, and we’re terrified. I read in the paper that half the student body at Hickory High School stayed home a week ago Friday because of fear. Capitalizing on the terror from Parkland, Florida, the graffiti message at the school said, “Don’t come Friday, heheh, cuz death will happen.” Fear will imprison you in your own home, or inside your own mind.

There is the bondage of bitterness. Maybe the bitterness is toward someone who’s hurt you. I told the story recently of the pastor in the first church Linda and I served going to see a parishioner who had stopped coming to church. She said she didn’t want to return because someone had hurt her feelings and she couldn’t forgive. The pastor answered, “Don’t you know that Jesus said if you don’t forgive others, he won’t forgive you?” She answered, “I’ll take my chances.” She lived in the bondage of bitterness.

Sometimes bitterness is toward a whole group of people – the bondage of prejudice and hate because of another person’s race or color. Don’t ever say Christianity is a white man’s religion or a black man’s religion. Christ belongs to the world. You may think your bitterness toward another race is your right, that you’re free to despise them. No, it is your bondage.

There may even be bitterness toward God for not answering your prayers or solving your problems. God has made you free to ignore him or hold on to your bitterness toward him. But when you hold on to your bitterness toward God, you create your own prison because you lock out the One who can set you free.

There is the bondage of greed. This one too is deceptive. John D. Rockefeller, one of the richest men of the twentieth century, was asked once, “How much money is enough money?” He answered, “Just a little more.” When you set your heart on riches as a goal, you will never be satisfied because you will always be envious of those who have “just a little more.” The Bible says, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”[7] Money is not evil. The love of money will keep you in bondage.

Finally, there is the bondage of sin. This is at the heart of all bondage – addiction, fear, bitterness, greed, and much more. Jesus said the devil “is a liar, and the father of lies.”[8] Satan will tell you you’re living in freedom when he has you locked up in your sin and he’s thrown the key away. The devil delights in your bondage. He gloats over it. He loves it when you think you’re free, but he knows you’re just free to sit in his prison cell of the sin and self-destruction that leads to hell.

Dr. Luke wants you to behold this woman whom Satan had kept bound for eighteen years. How long has Satan kept you in bondage?

God loves you

Jesus wanted that woman who came to the synagogue that day to be set free. The Bible says when Jesus saw her, he called her forward. As I picture this scene, it feels like the slowest of slow motion. Jesus stops teaching. He sets his gaze on this woman. He asks her to come forward in front of the whole crowd. She moves slowly, timidly, perhaps unsure at first why she’s being singled out. People in bondage like to stay in the shadows. Sometimes the movement toward freedom, especially in front of others, seems too risky. She could have stayed in her seat. It was painful to get up. It was embarrassing to try to move with everyone staring. She shuffled toward Jesus, head bowed. People had to move out of her way. The room fell silent. You could have heard a pin drop as she made her way toward Jesus.

Then Jesus spoke to her. Nobody else spoke to her that day, but Jesus did. “Woman,” he said, “you are set free from your infirmity.” With Martin Luther King, Jr., she declared, “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, free at last.”

Then Jesus touched her. Nobody else touched her, except maybe to brush her aside. Jesus laid his hands on her, and as soon as he touched her, she straightened up and began glorifying God. The Gaither Vocal Band sang at Billy Graham’s funeral last week. One of their most well-known songs says, “Shackled by a heavy burden, ‘neath a load of guilt and shame. Then the hand of Jesus touched me, and now I am no longer the same… Since I met this blessed Savior, since he cleansed and made me whole. I will never cease to praise Him. I’ll shout it while eternity rolls.” Jesus touched this woman and made her whole and she didn’t offer just one shout of praise. She hadn’t said much of anything to anyone for, behold, eighteen years – but that day she kept praising.

Not everyone was happy. The synagogue ruler was upset. This, after all, was the Sabbath day, and maybe he was in the middle of a sermon series on keeping the rules about the Sabbath day. He wasn’t brave enough to confront Jesus directly, nor did he speak to the woman. He addressed the crowd: “There are six days for work, so come and be healed on those days not on the Sabbath” (14). The Bible says he was “indignant.” Imagine being furious at Jesus – for setting someone free!

Religion is another form of bondage. Many people think religion is the path to freedom. Many people think what we’re doing here today is religion. It’s not religion. It’s a relationship with the living Lord Jesus Christ. A relationship with God will change your life and give you freedom. Religion is just another form of bondage.

As a pastor, I can understand the synagogue ruler. Do you think I would react well if I had prepared worship and my sermon and someone else said, “Sit down! You don’t get to speak today.” Oh, that happened just last Sunday. I like to be in control, and when I’m not in control my sin nature emerges. I’m not going to heaven because I have been a pastor at Corinth for 25 years; I’m going to heaven because Jesus died for me and rose again. All my sins were forgiven at the cross.

The ruler won’t talk directly to Jesus, but Jesus talks directly to him and to anyone else in the building that values the bondage of religion over the freedom of relationship. “You hypocrites!” Jesus says, “Don’t you free your animals on the Sabbath day to go to the stream for water? Isn’t the Sabbath day the right day for this daughter of Abraham to be set free from her eighteen years of Satanic prison?”

The Bible says, “Behold, now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”[9] If you are in bondage to addiction, or fear, or bitterness, or greed, or any kind of sin, today is your Sabbath, the day for you to be set free.

God loves you and wants to free you from bondage. The Bible says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus… For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”[10]

What Jesus was doing that day in the synagogue was giving a preview of what he would do on the cross. When he died on the cross, he died to set us truly free. Free from condemnation, free from fear, free from death, free from bondage of any kind. He said to his Father, “I will go down there into their prison, and will accept on my body and soul all the penalty for their sin so that they can be free.” That is his offer today.

The public call

Billy Graham issued a public invitation almost every time he preached, and always at a crusade. He would often recount his own story, that he was active in a church youth group when evangelist Mordecai Hamm came to town. He was religious, but he had not yet met Christ. During Hamm’s crusade, Billy volunteered to sing in the choir so he wouldn’t have to face the evangelist’s gaze or watch his pointed finger. One night the Lord seized his heart, and he went forward to seal his commitment to Christ.

The second reason I don’t give invitations has something to do with me. My experience with altar calls was different than that of Billy Graham’s. I did go forward, and it just made me more insecure. Those I met at the front asked the wrong questions. At that time of my life, I was taught to ask, “Did I pray the right prayer? Did I really mean it? Did I go forward and get baptized in the right order?” If I don’t know for sure I’m going to heaven, there must be something wrong with what I did.

I came to a place of spiritual assurance when I realized it’s not about what I’ve done. It’s about what Jesus Christ did.

Listening to Billy Graham’s sermons over the last two weeks, I realized that even Billy would say you can’t treat an altar call like a religious ritual. Going forward doesn’t change your life. I knew a woman some years back who was engaged in an ongoing criminal act. She told me she went forward at the altar call at her church every Sunday and wept… but continued her crimes the next week. A total heart commitment to Christ changes everything. It’s the repentance, the change of direction. It’s when you stop making excuses for your bondage and turn to Christ for freedom.

Still, imagine if the disabled woman in Luke 13 had not come forward when Jesus called her. Jesus knew there was power in that public response. There was power for her and for everyone who watched when she was willing to stand and move in front of everyone who was present and admit that she needed what only Jesus could do for her. He could have healed her from her seat. He sometimes healed people from a distance. But he knew she would never be the same if she came forward. A public stand means you’re saying to your family, your friends, to everyone:  I am publicly and irreversibly committed to following Christ, no matter the cost.

I’m going to invite you today to come forward. Perhaps you’ve never fully turned your life over to Jesus Christ. Maybe you’re not sure you would go to heaven if you died today. Maybe you realize your love for Christ has grown cold and you’ve compromised your life and witness. Perhaps you are harboring a secret bondage, one that even your family doesn’t know about. Billy would often say the issue is not whether you’re a church member or even a teacher or elder. You can be any or all of that and be lost without Christ. Maybe you just have a burden on your heart for yourself or a loved one and you need to pray. Perhaps your prayer is for healing.

You may go directly to the altar area if you wish to pray silently. If you would like to speak to someone who can help you make or renew your commitment to Christ, we have asked some of the spiritual leaders in the church to be available in front of the lectern and pulpit. They will be glad to listen to you and pray with you.

As you come, we’ll sing the hymn made famous by the Billy Graham crusades:  “Just as I am without one plea but that Thy blood was shed for me. And as Thou bidst me come to Thee, O Lamb of God, I come, I come.” Amen.

 

[1] John 8:36.

[2] Galatians 6:1.

[3] Luke 13:3.

[4] John 3:16

[5] Hebrews 9:27

[6] John 8:3, Living Bible.

[7] 1 Timothy 6:10.

[8] John 8:44.

[9] 2 Corinthians 6:2.

[10] Romans 8:1-2.

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