Last Sunday, I introduced our series on the Life & Times of Elijah. In the months before preaching, I spent most of my time reading and rereading the stories contained in the books that set the scene for Elijah’s ministry: 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel and 1 Kings.
As I went through them, God pointed out several of the choices that God’s people and their rulers made that led up to the broken culture Elijah was ministering to. One of those fork-in-the-road moments was their choice to be led by a king to become like all the other nations, rather than to remain distinct with God as their king.
The story (found in 1 Kings 12)
Another of these key moments in Israel’s history comes when Solomon passes the kingdom on to his son, Rehoboam. During Solomon’s rule, there was great prosperity, and he ruled in absolute splendour, building not only the great temple of Jerusalem but also his own (even more lavish) palace. Soon after Rehoboam ascends to the throne, it becomes clear that the nation’s ‘progress’ has come at a great price. The people gather to him to make a request:
“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labour and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.”
The burden that the people were under in order to achieve all these great works of architecture and the building of infrastructure was enslaving them – far from what God wants for His children. Would King Rehoboam lighten the load as they requested? It took him three days to come up with his answer:
“My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”
In an attempt to show his power, he chooses to deepen his hold over the people. The words of Samuel 90 years earlier are fulfilled, when he warned them that to appoint a king over them would be returning themselves to the position of slavery that God has saved them from in Egypt 400 years before.
That one of God’s own people should bring this about is only deepens the tragedy. It is the decision that tears the nation in two.
The same decision today
Like Israel of c.930BC, this is a decision that we need to make for ourselves: Shall we live in the freedom God has given us, or shall we accept a return to our previous state of slavery?
We may think in the 21st century, in light of God’s grace, that this might not be an issue that we need to talk about any more. In his beautiful letter to the Galatian church on the subject of freedom, the apostle Paul seems to think we might not be so clear on the matter. He answers the question that we don’t even know we need to ask ourselves:
Of course, it was for freedom that Christ has set us free! He wouldn’t have paid the highest price for us to have a moment of freedom, only to slip back into and impoverished state of slavery again.
Sin and guilt: the gruesome twosome
While most of us will never face physical enslavement like Israel did, living in forced labour, there are two slave-drivers that we need to be mindful of: sin and guilt. Undealt with, they work as a team, smashing us back and forth between themselves like two expert tennis players. Here’s how the cycle goes…
I slip up and – either deliberately or accidentally – sin…
Guilt waits at the door, ready to point out how terrible we are. It whispers that God could never love someone who sins like that…
We believe the lie and recoil from God, taking on ourselves a state of shame…
And accept that we are powerless to resist sin…
And so the cycle repeats.
BUT… Jesus has purchased eternal freedom for us. And that freedom enables us to quickly shake off the chains that sin and guilt want to see us shackled in. He has broken the cycle for us! He’s given us royal authority over sin and guilt to silence their deception.
This changes how we treat ourselves
This side of heaven, we’re going to make mistakes – even Israel’s best king, David, made some howlers. But he was good at coming straight back to his heavenly Father God and throwing himself on God’s mercy. Having sinned, he doesn’t let guilt rule.
We get to do that too, even more so, knowing the depths of God’s love that are displayed on the cross of Christ – for if He loved us THAT MUCH, His forgiveness and restoring grace isn’t going to just evaporate. Jesus’ sacrifice is the proof we need to destroy the lie of guilt that says God is finished with us. That picture of Jesus laying it all down is all we need to know that the price is fully paid for our every mistake and we are loved more than we can consider.
Like with David, God has not only completely freed us from the destructive cycle… He gives us a new purpose.
“Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” (Hebrews 12: 1)
This is what God does: He brings freedom by destroying the lie of guilt, and then restores dignity by letting us take part in His story. It’s a double whammy of restoration; it’s beautiful stuff! So let’s go Taylor Swift style on sin and shame and shake it off.
It changes how we treat others
So we have this freedom from God, but it’s too good a gift to keep to ourselves. The call of a Christian is to be ambassadors of freedom, and to ensure that – unlike King Rehoboam – we never put others under the slavery of shame.
Although this may be particularly important for men and women who are in positions of leadership in any context, really it’s a call on us all in the way we deal with situations in life. Whether someone makes an innocent mistake or acts deliberately in spite, we need to choose to respond in a way that sets the situation on a path of peaceful resolution
Sometimes when we’re the ones who feel wronged, there’s a journey of forgiveness to go through, particularly when it has caused us serious harm. But freedom is now our way of life. It’s evidence of our relationship with God, and it’s an amazing way that we can remain distinct in our day to day.