Easter 4a, 2014
So Jesus again said to them, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
For those of us who grew up in the days of the cold war, there are some images that will never leave us. Every year in May, I can recall the May Day parades that would be held in Moscow. It was a huge communist holiday. They would broadcast worldwide and the scenes would come into our living room through the evening news. There in Red Square, the military parades would process, along with an apparently endless line of artillery and missiles and tanks. The leader of the Soviet Union would stand in pride, inspecting the procession, projecting an air of stubborn defiance against our nation and everything we stood for.
As a teenager, I knew that our hometown, St. Louis, was third on the list of cities that the Soviet Union had targeted. With McDonnell Douglas headquartered by the airport, we had a significant aviation industry. It was as if we lived in the Valley of the Shadow of Death – with nuclear warheads dangling over us. Any day could welcome a mushroom cloud in the east, a hot blast and deadly radiation. Thanks be to God, that imminent threat has subsided and nations are no longer aggressively following policies of what we called “Mutually Assured Destruction”—or MAD for short.
A lot of what we heard about life in the Soviet Union did seem mad to us, too. It was crazy to hear of the State controlling the raising of children and using the press only for its own propaganda. We heard of long lines of customers outside of stores but by the time people got inside, there was little to nothing left on the shelves. The buildings were grey and utilitarian. Religion was suppressed and opposed. Everything of life in a totalitarian society is determined by the state: what work you do and where, under what conditions and for what reward. I supposed people got to choose whom they married. In China today, it’s still true that you can’t even choose how many children you may have. Well, you can choose: zero or one but no more than that, or else your family suffers heavy fines.
The Soviet Union remained a threatening mystery as long as it stood – but one explanation stands out in my mind: that each society must make its own choice of how to balance freedom and security. In the United States, we have historically enjoyed and opted for lots of freedom and we have accepted the insecurity that came with that. You make the choices for your own life – and you bear the consequences for those choices. You can make excellent choices and rise to the top of your field, start a company, or invent a new product. And so our society became known for its great successes and innovations and independence. But it is also true that people could plummet under this system, sometimes with little or no safety net to catch them. Literally, when the stock market crashed in 1929, despairing businessmen really did jump out of windows because life had become hopeless to them in the face of their devastating losses. On the other hand, in most other societies, they opt for less freedom and what at least appears to be more security – and some go to the extreme. In the Soviet Union, you might not have a choice about the kind of job you’d have, but you know you’d have a job – zero unemployment was their boast. All the elderly people would have pensions to live on – well, it might not buy you much at all and you might not find products in the stores and those products you could find might be of cheap quality like the famous East German car, the Trabant – but you would have a pension, whatever that might be worth. Crime was wonderfully low in Moscow. Teens wouldn’t even put graffiti on the buildings, because the consequences for being caught for misbehavior could destroy the rest of your life.
In this fallen world, with our human political systems, this seems to be the choice we must make – as individuals and as a society: what do you value more? Freedom or security? How will you calibrate that choice? Even in our own daily decisions, we face similar alternatives. We can opt to be free to decide each day what we want to eat right then or we might opt for the security of having a full freezer but then the commitment of eating our way through it over time. We might opt for the freedom of renting a home and being about to move to a new city with relative ease or we might opt for the security of purchasing a house but then being tied down to that. Would you prefer the freedom of being your own boss and heading your own business or the security of working for someone else who is then going to determine your hours and your tasks?
Only in the Kingdom of God is their both perfect freedom and perfect security under our Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. He tells us in John 10, the Gospel lesson we heard today: “I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.10… I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” Only our Lord can promise us freedom–going in and out under His watchful eye—and security—having salvation and a sure pasture. This is the abundant life which cannot be attained by any political system. It cannot be attained by any kind of lifestyle choices or creative earthly wisdom. Under our Good Shepherd, you will know true freedom and true security, but both of these by faith.
Under the care of our Good Shepherd we have the security of knowing that He will lead us beside quiet waters, makes us lie down in green pastures and prepare a table before us. We will be free from the fear of any evil as goodness and mercy follow us all the days of our life. Our Lord Jesus is none other than the Son of God who rules over heaven and earth. He has defeated death and conquered Satan. He Himself is the Lord Yahweh come in the flesh to guide us along His good paths so that we may dwell in His house forever. He knows us and calls us by name and His gentle voice leads us.
In Him we also have freedom. By His Spirit He frees us from our bonds to sin and fear. He opens new ways of living which we could never have conceived before – a life of faith with new possibilities, new adventures, new risks, new challenges to meet and overcome. We are free for the first time to imagine what it means not to live for ourselves but in service to God by serving our neighbors. We are free from having to constantly try to fulfill ourselves because we are free to pour ourselves out in love for others. This is the freedom of those who pray to the Father in heaven, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” By the Spirit of God, His good and gracious and loving will becomes our will, too. To walk in righteousness and goodness becomes our desire and our delight. To live a life patterned after the cross of Christ becomes our own true fulfillment, because this is what we were made for, what we were called to, and what God Himself is doing to shape and guide our lives.
Isn’t this what our mothers, together with all good mothers, wanted for their children? Both security and freedom. Mothers wish to raise their children so that they can be competent adults, making choices for themselves and making good choices that lead to blessing, that they may walk in godly wisdom and enjoy the fullness of life in peace and safety. And so the wisest mothers have always helped their children to know the Lord and they have done that by sharing the Word of Christ with them and expressing the faith themselves.
Our lives will not be secured by money or jobs or earthly success attained in any capitalist economy; nor can any government promise us true and lasting security. Have we not seen “Social Security” itself becoming less and less secure with each passing year? Our lives our secure only in our Good Shepherd, for nothing can snatch us out of His hand. And freedom, too, will never be a matter of doing whatever we want, whenever we want, and however we want. If that’s what we want to do for our old, sinful nature, we won’t have any Good Shepherd and we’ll soon find we have no good life, no real peace, no loving relationships, no meaningful friendships, no true joy. We’ll find ourselves bound to our own shallow and petty possibilities.
But the Good Shepherd grants us the abundant life of faith under His care and by His guidance. We find our freedom and our security in following His voice. Let His Holy Scriptures be your guide through life. The Lord knows you by name. He calls you by name. He cares for you and He will bring you into blessing far beyond anything that you or anyone else could give you.
Easter 4a, 2014