We design our summer messages as a series, yet ensure that each sermon can stand alone, given the vacation habits of New Englanders. Last summer's theme was "I AM: God in His Own Words," exploring some of the images God uses to reveal himself in the Scriptures—Rock, Shield, Father, etc. For the past couple of years we've also produced "trading cards" that capture each week's message in a visual image with some key thoughts. The cards give a sense of coherence to the summer months and seem to engage both kids and adults. This message was the ninth in a series of ten.
While many of the images were simple and concrete—like Rock—this one, Redeemer, doesn't readily conjure up an image in people's minds. It can also be a complex word to unpack biblically and theologically. For these reasons I opted to open with a homemade parable to heighten the visual and narrative dimensions, both in the introduction and throughout the message. We also found an engaging photo of a boy sailing a boat on a pond to accompany the story. We used the image again as a backdrop for the closing song and it reinforced both the message and the song.
This message took on new meaning for me theologically and personally in the wake of an interfaith clergy trip to Israel. Conversations on the bus revealed that many of my colleagues from other traditions saw no need for a redeemer. At the last minute, I jettisoned some other material I had and shared a bit of that experience to drive home the wonderful truth that our God is a Redeemer. As it turned out, one of the rabbis from the trip "happened" to visit us that day, and was quite intrigued by what I shared. We've had lunch since then, and he has invited me to come speak at one of his Sabbath services!
Once there was a boy who built himself a boat—not a full-sized boat but a model boat, a sailboat. For years he and his father had been going down to the nearby pond to sail store-bought model boats across the water. But now he was ten years old, and he wanted his own boat. He designed it himself, and he went out and bought all the materials with his own money. Under his father's watchful eye, he carefully crafted the boat out of wood and canvas and string. He named it Beauty, because he liked how it looked across the water. Every Saturday afternoon and sometimes after work, he and his father would run down to the pond and sail that little boat. They watched with joy and pride as Beauty caught the wind and raced across the pond.
But one day the wind blew especially hard, and before they knew it, the boat was headed toward the far side of the pond where it emptied out into a fast-flowing stream. The boy hurried across the shoreline trying to get there ahead of time, but the underbrush was too thick and the boat got carried downstream. All he could do was watch it disappear from view. The next day he and his father walked a long way down that stream, but there was no sign of the boat. As they trudged back, the father said to his son, "Why don't we build another boat?" "I don't want another boat," the boy said. "I want Beauty." Weeks passed, and then months. The father and son found other things to do that summer but nothing quite as fun as sailing that boat on the lake.
The next spring, father and son were out shopping in town and they walked past a resale shop. The boy stopped suddenly and pointed in the window. "Look!" he said, "I think that's my boat!" The father leaned in and said, "I don't know, son." The boat in the window was painted a dull gray color; the hull was cracked; the sail was torn; and there were pirate flags stuck on top. But the boy insisted. So they went inside for a closer look, and sure enough, there were the letters B-e-a peeking through the chipped gray paint. "I knew it," he said. "It's Beauty."
They ran in quickly, found the store manager, and explained what had happened, how the boy had made the boat himself but had lost it in the storm last spring. "I wouldn't know about that," the store manager said. "All I know is that it's got a price tag on it now. You're welcome to buy it if it means that much to you." The boy looked down at the price tag and back up at his dad. "Can we buy it, Dad? Can we buy it back?" "It's in pretty bad shape, son," the father said. "I don't know if it will ever sail again." "That's okay," the boy said. "I want it anyway. I've got some money saved up at home." The father said, "But I thought you were saving that for a new skateboard." "I'd rather have Beauty," the boy said. So the father plunked some money down on the counter. They took that little boat home with them. It took some work, but before too long the boat looked just like it did the day the boy made it. Soon after, he and his father were back down by the pond watching with joy and pride as that little boat caught the wind and raced across the pond.
Redemption occurs in everyday life.
I began with that simple story because we're going to be exploring a rather complex subject this morning: redemption. Redemption is one of those big Bible words that we use a lot in church, like "justification," "sanctification," or "propitiation." The difference is that redemption is a word we also use in everyday life.
I was reading Maureen Dowd's column in last week's Sunday paper. She was writing about President Obama's difficulties in living up to the expectations surrounding his election in 2008. She writes: "He came as a redeemer and then didn't redeem." Now whether you agree with her assessment or not, she has an interesting choice of words. In a less lofty moment, I was listening to sports radio, and the sports guys were talking about Roger Clemens and his indictment for lying under oath in the steroid investigation. The astute sportscasters observed that, unlike active players who have been implicated in the steroid scandal, Clemens has no opportunity to redeem himself since he doesn't play the game anymore. And to take this concept into a more mundane arena, I came across a feature in Microsoft Outlook called "Outlook Redemption." Apparently it has something to do with working your way around the security system. If you think redemption is complicated theologically, try reading Microsoft's description of redemption. All of these examples are to show that while redemption is one of those big Bible words, it's a word we use in a variety of contexts.
What exactly does redemption mean? More importantly, what does God mean when he reveals himself as Redeemer? What does it teach us about who he is and how he works in our lives and our world? That's where we're headed this morning, and I hope the parable of the boy and his boat might help us get there. One of the toughest things about this message was choosing which Scriptures to use, because there are over a hundred and fifty that talk explicitly about God as Redeemer. We won't cover all of them this morning, but we're going to come close.
Let's begin with a classic definition of redemption. This comes right out of the Bible dictionary: "Redemption is the deliverance of the people of God from the bondage of sin by the perfect substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ and their consequent restoration to God and his heavenly kingdom." That's kind of a mouthful, so let's break it down into three separate parts. Redemption in the Bible always involves at least three things.
Redemption always involves rescue.
The first is part of redemption is rescue. Redemption always involves something of value that has been lost, ruined, or taken captive. President Obama has lost the popularity and the clout that he enjoyed on Inauguration Day. Roger Clemens has lost the respect of his fans and perhaps a berth in the Hall of Fame. The little boy not only lost his boat, he also lost those wonderful afternoons with his father down by the pond. Redemption is about rescuing something that's been lost, ruined, or taken captive. And according to the Bible, we need to be rescued. Listen to these words from Isaiah 43: "But now this is what the Lord says—he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine."
God created us as surely as that boy made that little boat, and God made us for beauty and joy and goodness and purpose and love, and most importantly, he made us for himself—to enjoy relationship with him today and forever. But something happened along the way, and we got lost. Our relationship was ruined by our foolishness and recklessness. We were taken captive by sin. Unlike the little boat that was swept away by outside forces, this isn't something that happened to us; this is something we brought on ourselves. And we need to be rescued.
Scripture goes on to identify some of the things we need to be rescued from, and I want to share a few of them with you. Colossians 1:13 tells us: "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness." To be in the dark means to be lost, to be confused, to feel left out, forgotten, and alone. When you're in the dark you don't know exactly where you are or where you're going. You don't know if you should hurry or slow down. You don't know if you should stop and sit still, or if you should get out of there. Do you ever feel like you're in the dark spiritually? You're not sure who God is or where God is or who you are or what you're supposed to be doing in this world. We need to be rescued from darkness.
And look at Titus 2:14: "Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness." Have you ever done anything wicked? And I don't mean Wicked in the Broadway sense of the word, which really isn't all that wicked. Have you ever done something awful? Have you ever said something that was downright hateful or intentionally hurtful or blatantly untrue? Have you ever had a thought that shocked you by its depravity? We need to be rescued from thoughts and words and actions like those. One of the hottest songs in the country recently was "Love the Way You Lie," by Eminem and Rihanna—a gritty rap number that describes a man and a woman whose apparent love for one another has been consumed and is being destroyed by dysfunction and abuse. "I like the way it hurts," she sings sweetly. "If she ever tries to leave again," he boasts, "I'm going to tie her to the bed and set this house on fire." I don't know what's more disturbing—the fact that so many men and women live that way, or that we play a song like that on the radio and call it entertainment. Either way, there's something wicked going on. We need to be rescued from things like that.
Well, if darkness and wickedness isn't a problem for you, how about guilt? Galatians 3:13 says this: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law." What does that mean? I thought God gave us the law for our good. I thought it was supposed to help us. Well, he did. The problem comes when we take the law and try to use to prove how good we are, to establish our own righteousness, to work our way to God, to impress other people with our goodness. When we do that the law becomes a curse, a taskmaster that's always driving us to try harder and be better and do "good-er." It's a curse because we can't keep the law. We're always messing up. We're always falling short. We're always carrying around this burden of guilt and inadequacy. We need to be rescued from that.
And in case none of those fit you—darkness, wickedness, guilt—how about emptiness? First Peter 1:18: "You were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers." Maybe you're not feeling any of those other things we talked about, but every once in a while life just feels kind of empty—like you're just going through the motions, like no matter what you achieve or accomplish or have or do never really feels like enough. We need to be rescued from that. We need to be rescued from all of it. That's where redemption begins.
Redemption always involves ransom.
Having laid that foundation of rescue, we can move a little more quickly through the next couple words that make up redemption. The second word is ransom. There's always a price to be paid for our rescue. In order for President Obama to recover his popularity and clout, he's going to have to resolve some of the crises facing our nation. The only way for Roger Clemens to redeem himself will be for him to do something noble or praiseworthy that eclipses all the accusations against him. Redemption always carries a price tag.
There are actually two words that mean redemption in the Scriptures. One of the words comes from the marketplace. It's a simple word that you would use to buy something. You want an item, it has a price, you pay the price, and you receive it. You purchase it; you buy it. The second word used for redemption is a word that's used to release something. You pay money to release a slave, to release a prisoner of war, to release a piece of property that's been mortgaged. In effect, you are paying money to buy something back, something that's rightfully owned by you or someone else.
In our little parable, the boat belonged to the boy. He paid for the parts. He designed it. He made it. He even named it. It was his by rights. But something happened to that boat. It was lost and ruined and taken captive, and the boy had to buy it back. So it is with us. We were made by God and for God. We belonged to him by virtue of creation, but we became lost, ruined, and were taken captive. And we need to be bought back, and there's a price for that.
Let's take a look again at 1 Peter 1:18: "For you know it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ." We tend to think of money when we hear the word ransom, but no amount of money can rescue us from darkness or emptiness or wickedness or guilt. No earthly currency at all—not good works, not religion, not sincerity—none of those things can buy us back. Only the death of Christ can pay that price.
Look at Galatians 3:13: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. For it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'" The only way for Christ to release us from the burden of the law was to fulfill that law perfectly, because we never could, and then suffer the penalty for our failures to keep the law, so we don't have to suffer that penalty. In Old Testament times, when someone was executed for a capital crime, their body would often be left to hang on a tree or a gallows as a vivid, grim display of the consequences of wrongdoing and lawbreaking.
In this series, we're providing an icon with each image of God we discuss. Coming up with an icon to represent redemption was challenging, and we realized there's only one image that can work: the cross. The cross reminds us of the price that Christ paid for our redemption. In fact, it turns out that this ransom, this payment, was the very reason Christ came to earth in the first place. Jesus tells us this in his own words in Mark 10: "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."
In the movie Saving Private Ryan, an army captain named John Miller is given a mission: he and a small squad of soldiers are sent behind enemy lines to rescue a soldier named James Francis Ryan, whose three other brothers have already been killed in action. Their mission is to find Private Ryan and get him out of harm's way, so he can return to his grieving mother back in the States. They accomplish their mission, but it costs Captain Miller and many others their lives. That was the price of saving Private Ryan. In a similar way, God sent his Son to earth to find us, to take us out of harm's way, and to restore us to relationship with our heavenly Father. He accomplished that mission, but it cost him his life.
Redemption always involves restoration.
And that leaves the third element in redemption: restoration. The goal of redemption is to recover what's been lost, to restore what's been ruined, and to return what's been taken captive.
When that boy brought the lost boat home, he didn't leave it in its damaged condition up on the shelf somewhere. No, he repaired it, and as soon as he could, he got it back on the water to sail again. That's the goal of our redemption as well. God hasn't rescued and ransomed us so that we can continue to go on as we were, messing up our lives and living apart from him. Colossians tells us: "For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." He wants us to be in relationship with him again, to enjoy life in his kingdom today and forever. Titus tells us the same thing: "Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good."
God's intent from the very beginning was that we would be his people, and that we would be as eager to do good as he is to do good. Not because we have to, to prove something to him or to anyone else, but because we want to, because we're free to. When we've been redeemed, we are free to say no to greed, pride, jealousy, anger, and lust. We're free to let go of bitterness, anger, hatred, prejudice, and resentment. We're free to say yes to beauty and joy and goodness and purpose.
I think this next passage, a classic text on redemption, says it best: "So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world, but when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights as sons" (Galatians 4:3-4). This is the language of the slave market. We used to be in bondage, prisoners of our own foolishness, and slaves to the foolish, reckless ways of the world. We couldn't help ourselves. We couldn't save ourselves. But God sent his Son into the slave market. He went looking for us and he found us, and he paid a price and he brought us home to our heavenly Father, who breaks the shackles from our hands and our feet and declares us to be nothing less than sons and daughters, with all the rights and privileges thereof. Redemption.
And what God has done for us he will one day do for all of creation. Romans 8 says: "The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed, for the creation was subjected to frustration in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God." Some day everything on earth and in heaven will be restored to its original splendor, to all that God had in mind when he created it in the first place, for his glory and for our good. All this is possible because our God is a Redeemer
Redemption leads us to Christ.
That's our takeaway for this week: Because God is a Redeemer, I can be set free. To many of us it may see rather obvious. Doesn't everybody know that God's a redeemer, that he's a savior? But it's not as obvious as you might think.
Last week I described a little bit of the interfaith clergy tour group I was with in Israel a couple of weeks ago. There was a wide spectrum of religious perspectives represented in that group. We had Jewish rabbis and Roman Catholic priests and a whole variety of Protestants from a variety of traditions and movements. One day on the bus we got talking about salvation—one of the scintillating conversations clergy have on buses. I asked some of my colleagues this question: "What exactly do you mean by salvation? Would you say we need to be saved?" "Not exactly," one of them said. "I'd say we need to save ourselves—that we need God's help, but it's up to us to transform ourselves and to transform our world." I said, "Well, how do we do that, save ourselves and the world?" Someone else said, "By doing our best to practice our faith and to love our neighbor and to do good in the world." That's a very different understanding of salvation than the one I've been describing to you this morning. And it wasn't just one colleague who expressed that point of view. It was several.
I got an email this week from someone who has been attending our church recently, and with their permission I'm going to share a few lines of it:
As a Christian church, you're all about believing in Jesus and being happy and at peace and having the wonderful life that God wants. It's all good stuff. But it seems to me that no one says why. What I mean is that millions of people are happy, good people who do charitable work, devote their lives to serving others, and are at peace. But I don't see why you have to believe in Jesus for that to be true. I think that as long as you are a good person who has a kind heart and does their best, that your belief system doesn't really matter. So if anyone has any thoughts on this, want to shoot me a line?
I have a few thoughts: Certainly, people can be happy and do some good and find a measure of peace with any belief system, or even with no particular belief system at all. We were created by God for those things. We have the capacity for all of them, and sometimes we get it right. But what happens when we don't get it right? What happens when you're not a good person? What happens when you're hardhearted instead of kindhearted? Instead of doing your best, you do something awful? Where do we go with our guilt and our grief and our disappointment with ourselves and our fellow human beings? Certainly we can be happy and do good and find a measure of peace when life is working pretty well for us. But what do you do when life doesn't work, when life falls apart, when disaster happens, when tragedy strikes, when people hurt us and desert us? What do we do then?
When we realize that, in spite of our highest hopes and our best intentions, there's something fundamentally wrong with us and with our world, that's when any old belief system won't do. That's when saving yourself won't cut it. That's when we need a Redeemer, someone who can rescue us from the mess we've made of things, someone willing to pay the price for that rescue, someone who can restore us to the people we were meant to be and to the world we were meant to live in.
You and I were created to catch the wind of God's Spirit and race across the pond of life. But something happened along the way. We got lost. Things got ruined, and we've been taken captive. We need a Redeemer. And praise God, there is one: Jesus Christ, God's Son.
It turns out there is one more R word associated with redemption. It's receive. This redemption isn't automatic. That little boat had no choice but to go home with its owner, but you and I have a choice. God in his love and wisdom gave us that freedom. If you have never received this redemption, you can receive it today simply by saying yes to God's offer of forgiveness and new life. If you're not quite ready to do that yet, if you're still sorting things out, or maybe you've got a measure of peace and happiness right now, that's okay. But when life doesn't work, when things fall apart, when you need to be rescued, you know who to call on. And if you've done that already, if you have been rescued, ransomed, restored, and redeemed, then praise God for it today and go out and live like it, not because you have to, but because you're free to.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.