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July 4, 2016. We will spend the day celebrating the 240th anniversary of our independence from Britain. The 240th anniversary of freedom. Many freedoms, including, as outlined in the Bill of Rights in our Constitution, the freedoms of religion, press, speech, and assembly, the freedom to keep and bear arms, the freedom to not be forced to house soldiers in our homes, the freedom against unreasonable searches and seizures, freedom from excessive bail, and the freedoms of receiving a speedy trial by jury, not being forced to testify against ourselves during a trial, and not being tried for the same crime twice.

There are many reasons for us to celebrate, and while I never have been and probably never will be a fan of all the fireworks - fireworks that began exploding in our neighborhood six weeks ago, so many fireworks the air in the afternoon and evening of Independence Day will be polluted - tomorrow is a day to celebrate. 

How good it is to have national freedom - a privilege very few other people around the world enjoy. On July 4, let’s feel good about the national freedom we have.

Today - and every other day - let’s feel good about and celebrate another kind of freedom that is available. Spiritual freedom. Freedom that comes when we accept Jesus as Savior. The Savior He became when He was crucified as the perfect sacrifice for our sins and, on the third day after His death, He came back to life. Let’s think about that this morning, including what we are to do with the spiritual freedom we have.

For today, there are three verses in the Bible we will consider. The first tells us one of the things we are to do with the spiritual freedom we have. The freedom all of us who have accepted Jesus as Savior have. 

Again, spiritual freedom comes from accepting Jesus as Savior. When that decision is made, we are free from sin. 

However, we are not to just have that freedom. We are to live as free people. We are to make freedom active in our lives. Including, according to I Peter 2:16, to “live as servants of God.”

To put that thought into context, let’s also consider some of what is around that verse in the Bible, such as a teaching that seems relevant for the July 4 holiday. It is for Christians to “be subject to every human institution,” all the way from emperors - presidents in our system of government - to governors. That means we are to obey the laws set by human institutions.

In addition, according to verses after I Peter 2:16, Christians are to honor all people, we are to especially love our fellow Christians, we are to fear, be in awe of, and highly respect God, and again, we are to honor the emperors.

All of that is part of being servants of God since, as Peter suggests, it is God who establishes human institutions and it is God who puts governmental leaders in power. Plus, it is God who created every human, and God is God, meaning He is certainly worthy of being feared.

“Live as free men,” Peter wrote in verse 16. Free spiritually. “Live as servants of God.” But wait a minute. How do the words “free” and “servants” fit together? Are they not opposed to one another? 

In the world, they might be, but not spiritually, as long as our service is to God because it is God who keeps us free from sin, free from corruption, free from doing anything that is wrong toward God. Free to do what is right - what is honoring to God.

In fact, that is what else Peter wrote in verse 16. “Live as free people, not using your freedom as a pretext for evil.”

Apparently there were some to whom Peter wrote. The same was true for those to whom Paul wrote. We are going to get to that in today’s second Bible verse. Apparently there were some Christians who were making a mockery of spiritual freedom. Mocking by doing whatever their human natures wanted them to do. Whatever made their human natures happy. Immoral, corrupt things. 

There were some who felt free to do whatever evil they wanted to do, claiming that because God forgives, they could go wild, ask for forgiveness later, and all would be fine.

But no, wrote Peter. We are not to take advantage of God’s love. We are to use our spiritual freedom, not to continue in sin, but to live above sin. As mentioned a moment ago, using our freedom to do what is right in the eyes of God.

When studying this verse, it came to my mind that when I taught at Charles Culler Junior High School, we had a poster in each classroom called Rights and Responsibilities. According to the poster, there were several rights each student had. As I recall, they included things like being in a safe environment and having opportunities to learn.

There were also some responsibilities each student had, including not interfering with the rights of other students to be safe and have opportunities to learn.

Rights? Yes, they are important. Responsibilities? We have those, too, even as Christians. As I read one place, Christian freedom is always conditioned by Christian responsibility, which is conditioned by God’s love.

We who are Christians are free to learn how God wants us to live. We are free to live in those ways as servants of God. That is both our right and our responsibility as Christians. On July 4 and beyond, let’s make sure we are free - that we have accepted Jesus as Savior. Then let’s make sure we use our freedom, not as a pretext for evil nor as an excuse that it is OK to do wrong, but to be servants of God. Free to do His will.

Peter wrote how we are to handle the spiritual freedom Christians have. So, too, did Paul write about that in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Christians in Galatia. The teaching is in verse 13. It begins, “For you were called to freedom, brethren.”

again, the call is to use our freedom to do what is right.

However, as was the case with the verse in I Peter, some Christians apparently ran the wrong way with the idea of spiritual freedom. Some took their freedom to mean that without spiritual law - being free from the restrictions of Old Testament law - they could do anything they wanted. In the case of Paul’s verse, anything immoral they wanted to do. 

As before, those people clung to the thought of forgiveness. Some assumed that since God wants to forgive, they might as well give Him something to forgive.

That thought is wrong. As Paul wrote in Galatians 5:13, “Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [which refers to physical immorality or any other crime based on human nature], but through love be servants.” Peter wrote that Christians are to be servants of God. Paul wrote, “through love, be servants of one another.” 

In other words, with the spiritual freedom we have, we are to do what is right in our relationships with other people. Of course, that will please God, so by treating others well, we will also be acting as servants of God, but we are, as Christians, free to serve one another.

Paul goes on in verse 14 to remind us of one of the teachings of Jesus, which was a quote of the Old Testament teaching, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” As I want to be treated well, I am to treat you well. By doing that, I am a servant of you and of God.

Then in verse 15, Paul makes an interesting point. “But if you bite and devour one another…” Obviously that is not a physical-type eating. It is an emotional thing, usually based on words. What Paul referred to is making biting or cutting remarks to one another for the purpose of hurting the feelings of someone else, or saying things to hurt the reputation of someone else, or doing what you can to put others in their place if they seem to be taking over something you want.

Biting and devouring someone can be easy to do with our human natures in charge, but there is a danger doing that. Paul wrote, “If you bite and devour one another, take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” The danger is a community of Christians can become so corrupt, so hurtful, so hurt, it will figuratively eat itself to death.

That obviously is not a good thing, which is why Paul wrote, “Use your spiritual freedom, not as an opportunity for the flesh, but to be servants of one another.” On July 4 and beyond, let’s make sure we are free - that we have accepted Jesus as Savior. Then let’s make sure we use our freedom for the good of others, knowing that doing so will please God.

Freedom. Spiritual freedom. How good it is to have that. What a responsibility goes along with it. The responsibility of using our freedom to be obedient servants of God and helpful servants of one another.

That is what we should want for ourselves. It is what we should want for all other Christians as well. Which is something about which we can pray, which brings us to the third verse for this message. An Old Testament verse. II Chronicles 7:14.

This verse has an interesting context. It is part of a message by God - from  God - to King Solomon after Solomon had completed the building of the Jewish Temple. The construction was done. A great feast had been held to celebrate the completion. The people who attended the celebration had been sent home. God then had a private conversation with Solomon.

Here is part of what God said. He shared with Solomon there would be troubled times in the future. God listed three troubles - lack of rain, locusts, and pestilence.

 I think we can come up with other troubled times in our day and age.

I am thinking of all the immorality around us that we see or hear in movies, music, magazines, even news reports. I think of that in connection to what Paul wrote against using our freedom for an opportunity for the flesh.

It can be difficult to avoid immorality because it is so prevalent all around us. I am also thinking, related to what Peter wrote, that there is a lot of anti-God thinking all around the world right now, which can make it difficult to use our freedom to stay true to God.

But we can be servants of God. We can be servants of one another. We can survive problems, including those God listed in II Chronicles 7. We can if we will do what God said in verse 14. Let’s read the entire verse together. We will then consider the various parts of it.

Say it with me, please. “If My people, who are called by My name, humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

I am struck by the word “if.” Not “when,” but “if.”  

That tells me it is our choice - our free will - whether to turn to God or not.

It suggests to me God is not certain all people will turn to Him in times of trouble. Obviously, that is what He wants us to do, but again, it is up to us whether or not to do that.

“If My people, who are called by My name.” As we know, “name” refers not to name as we define that word, as in God is who He is called. It refers to everything about God. His love, His compassion, His power, His knowledge. The list could go on and on, but if those who know and accept and understand everything about God will do certain things, God will bless.

Again, I am struck by the word “if.” If His people - if those who believe in Him - will do what He wants. What a warning that even as Christians - even those of us with the spiritual freedom that goes along with believing in Jesus - must be vigilant in making the decision to use our freedom to be servants of God and others.

“If My people, who are called by My name,” will do a number of things, the first of which is “humble themselves.”

“Humble” here is a verb. It means to lower oneself in dignity or importance.

Of course, we are important. We are the crowning part of God’s creation and God has given us dominion over every other part of His creation. And remember the words earlier of love your neighbor as you love yourself. The last part of that means we are to love ourselves.

We are important. But we must not, as people of God, put ourselves above God. Even on the same plane as God. That is what God meant when He said, “If My people humble themselves.”

We need to remember God is God. We need to remember we exist because of Him. We need to remember He, not we ourselves, are the source of the blessings we have.

We need to humble ourselves. As verse 14 continues, we also need to “pray.” We need to involve God in every part of our lives, including as we “seek His face,” which means to learn what He wants us to do.

We already know what God wants us to do. We know that through what God has taught us in the Bible. The Bible is filled with instructions about how we are to act and what we are to think. But we need to pray so we can learn and then apply all His teachings so that all we do, in our relationships with God and with others, will be pleasing to Him.

“If My people, who are called by My name, humble themselves and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways.”

Hopefully, none of us engage in wicked ways, but again, the call is to remain vigilant to use our spiritual freedom to be, as Peter wrote, servants of God and, as Paul wrote, servants of each other. Anything other than that needs to be repented.

“If My people, who are called by My name, humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways,” there is a promise. There is no “if” about this. This is what God will do when we do what He wants.

The promise? He will “hear from Heaven.” As God worded it in verse 15, His eyes will be open and His ears will be attentive. He will “forgive” our sins. He will “heal” the land.

*       *       *       *       *

National freedom. How precious it is. May we pray that the freedom this nation has enjoyed for 240 years will continue. May we do anything else we can to help our freedom to be maintained.

Spiritual freedom. How precious that is as well. The freedom to do what is right as we serve God. The freedom to do what is right as we serve others. Freedom we can maintain by being humble before God, by praying, by seeking God’s face, by turning from any wickedness in our lives. 

May we do all those things, confident that as we do, God will see us and hear us and answer us and heal us. May we pray for that to happen among those of us who believe. May we pray for that to happen throughout our land.

Happy freedom day, nationally and spiritually.

Today’s closing song is a reminder that we can do what God wants us to do, including being humble, praying, seeking, and turning. We can do those things because God promises to be with us, by our sides, helping us. The song is the hymn Be Still, My Soul.

Be still, my soul!

The Lord is on thy side;

Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;

Leave to thy God to order and provide,

In every change God faithful will remain.

Be still, my soul!

Thy best, thy Heavenly Friend

Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

Be still, my soul! 

Thy God doth undertake

To guide the future as He has the past.

Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;

All now mysterious shall be bright at last.

Be still, my soul!

When change and tears are past,

All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

God, thank You for our national freedom. What a privilege it is.

Thank You even more for our spiritual freedom. A gift given simply for accepting Jesus as Savior. 

Help us to appreciate our national freedom and to pray for it to continue. Help us to honor Your gift of spiritual freedom by using it to be good servants of You and others. 

Thank You. Amen.

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