“What Will You Do With Freedom?”
February 04, 2018
By John Partridge*
Isaiah 40:21-31 Mark 1:29-39 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Have you ever heard of a man named Blanche Bruce?
Bruce was born in 1841 to Polly Bruce, a domestic slave, and her master Pettis Perkinson, a white plantation laborer. As a slave, Blanche Bruce’s upbringing was comparatively privileged. His father raised him alongside his legitimate half-brother and allowed him to be educated with him by their private tutor. As he reached adulthood, his father legally freed him so that he could pursue an apprenticeship, but when the Civil War broke out many freed slaves were being returned to slavery and Bruce fled to Kansas.
At this point in our story, it’s worth noting that Blanche Bruce wasn’t the only slave, or freed slave, to escape from slavery. Many people did. But what makes Blanche Bruce worth remembering isn’t that he was a freed slave or an escaped slave, but what he did with his freedom once he had it.
In Kansas, he worked as a school teacher, and when he later moved to Mississippi he arrived there with only 75 cents to his name. Even so, it only took a few years before he was successful as both a land speculator and as a planter. His intellect, personality, and charisma also made him a rising star in the Mississippi Republican Party and as such, he became a sheriff, a tax collector, and the superintendent of education in his county. In 1874 he was elected to the United States Senate by the Mississippi legislature and he became the second black senator in U.S. history and the first to serve an entire six-year term. As senator, he defended black Civil War veterans, fought segregation, and spoke out for the rights of Chinese immigrants and Native Americans. After his term as senator, Bruce later served as the register of the US Treasury and thus the first African American to have his signature appear on our nation’s paper currency.
While that’s all very impressive, the reason that I’m telling you the story of Blanche Bruce is that, as we read the lessons of scripture, we find that we need to be asking ourselves one of the same questions that he did. We begin this morning with these words from the prophet Isaiah contained in Isaiah 40:21-31.
21 Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?
22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.
He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.
23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.
24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown,
no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither,
and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.
25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?
He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name.
Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.
27 Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”?
28 Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.
29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;
31 but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.
There are two key points that Isaiah emphasizes in this passage and those same two points underlie everything that we do as followers of God, as Christians, and as a church. First, God is uniquely powerful. Our God is the creator of the universe and everything that exists and there is none like him or even remotely close to him. Second, God is with us. Our God chooses to care about, and to care for his followers. Moreover, God chooses to work through his followers for the benefit of the entire world in a way that no other idol, god, or religion does. We can choose to live our lives without God, but we are strongest with him when we choose to follow him and when we invite God to work with us and through us.
But what does that look like?
In Mark 1:29-39, we see Jesus ministering in Peter’s hometown, but even at the height of his popularity and when the demand for his ministry was at its highest, he left.
29 As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. 30 Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they immediately told Jesus about her. 31 So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.
32 That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. 33 The whole town gathered at the door, 34 and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons, but he would not let the demons speak because they knew who he was.
35 Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 36 Simon and his companions went to look for him, 37 and when they found him, they exclaimed: “Everyone is looking for you!”
38 Jesus replied, “Let us go somewhere else—to the nearby villages—so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.” 39 So he traveled throughout Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and driving out demons.
Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law, and then the entire town gathered at the door of the house and Jesus healed diseases, and cast out demons from the people who had come. But early the next morning, even though more people were coming and everyone was looking for him, Jesus slips out of town to pray and doesn’t go back.
I made this point a week or two ago and I need to make it again today. Jesus was the Son of God, a member of the Trinity, and he literally had the freedom to do anything that he wanted to do. But the question that he asked himself was the same as the one that Blanche Bruce must have asked himself after he escaped to Kansas.
What will I do with my freedom?
Jesus explains to his disciples that he had been sent by God, not to minister only to one town, but to travel from town to town and carry the message of God to as many people as possible in all of Galilee and in all of Israel. Jesus had the freedom to do whatever he wanted, but with that freedom, he chose to do what God had called him to do.
Paul wrestled with this question as well and talks about it at some length in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 where he says:
16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.
19 Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul had a number of things to say and all of them are worth noting as we search for answers. First, Paul explains that he really can’t boast, or even take much credit, for the things that he does because he is compelled, by God to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. But more than that, Paul says that he would suffer if he did not do what God had called him to do. Second, Paul makes sure that his readers understand that he is a citizen of Rome, and as such, is absolutely free to do whatever he wants to do that is permissible under the law. He is a slave to no one and in addition, Paul knows that he has been made free from sin through the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But, with this freedom, he has chosen to do whatever he can to win souls for the kingdom of God. Paul is free to do as he pleases, but he will go anywhere, and do almost anything, to rescue the lost. He is fully committed to the goal of winning souls for Jesus Christ. And finally, Paul reminds the people of the church that no matter how committed we are, and no matter how devoted we are, or how much effort we expend, we won’t win every time or every person, but by doing all that we can, we will win some.
And this is where we return to Blanche Bruce.
As he fled Virginia and travelled toward Kansas, he knew that he could safely live there as a free man. But remember the question that he had to ask himself along the way.
What will I do with my freedom?
Today we must each ask ourselves that same question. Isaiah reminds us that God is not only uniquely powerful, but that our God chooses to care about us. God is free to do as he pleases, but chooses to work through his people to rescue the lost and to save the world. Jesus made that same choice. As a member of the Trinity, Jesus was free to do whatever he wanted, but he chose to do only the will of God. Paul emphasizes that, as a Roman citizen he had a lot of rights under the law. He was free to do whatever he wanted within the law. Paul chose to answer the call of God and to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ with everything that he had at his disposal. He would go anywhere, do anything, and become whatever he needed to become in order to save as many souls as he possibly could. Paul understood that he wouldn’t win every single time, but that, with every effort, he would win sometimes.
And so, today we are faced with that same question. We live in of one of the strongest nations on earth. We are citizens of the greatest empire that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Much of the world can only dream of things that most of us take completely for granted. The poorest among us have things that more than half of the world will never have. We have many basic rights that are guaranteed by the founding documents of our nation and we brag about the freedoms that we enjoy as a nation.
But the question we need to answer is the same as the one faced by Blanche Bruce, by the Apostle Paul, and by Jesus Christ.
What will I do with my freedom?
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.