Wednesday, March 08, 2006

SERMON: Religious Freedom

In February, I preached my third sermon in Korea. I estimate that the audience was roughly 50% SDA church members and 50% non-Christian English language students. This sermon seemed to strike a cord with many listeners--no one asked for copies of my first two sermons, but both students and teachers asked for copies of this one. Sorry that I repeat myself a lot.

This was partially inspired by It's About People by Jim Hohnberger.

You have the freedom to disagree with this sermon. :)

The Jesus Effect: Freedom (February 17, 2006)
The truth will make you free. (John 8:31-32)

[Deleted to save time and space.]

Mohammad cartoons (
I’m sure you have all seen or heard about the violent demonstrations that have been going on in the Islamic world recently. So far 13 people have died in the riots around the world, and the riots are still continuing.

Why are so many Muslims furious, and what are they demanding? A newspaper in Denmark published a series of 12 cartoons depicting the Islamic prophet Mohammed on September 30, 2005. Those cartoons have now been reprinted in approximately 40 newspapers.

In the Islamic faith, it is forbidden to draw pictures of Mohammed. Muslims are denouncing this “blasphemy,” while European countries are reprinting the cartoons in the name of “free speech.”
Some rioters are demanding that the 12 cartoonists and editors be hung. Some of the cartoonists have gone into hiding because of death threats. A cartoon is disrespectful, so the artists should die.

I’m not saying the newspapers or Muslims are right or wrong. But we can see that for many thousands of Muslim rioters, no religious freedom is granted to unbelievers. They are saying, “If you disagree with us, then you are worthy of death.”

Matthew Shepard ( (
But please don’t think that I’m picking on Islam. Let’s look at Christianity. In 1998 Matthew Shepard was beaten to death in the U.S. because he was homosexual. Soon Fred Phelps, a Baptist reverend in Topeka, Kansas, started organizing a protest for Matt’s funeral. In the fax announcing his protest, he urged people to arrive with signs containing messages such as NO TEARS FOR QUEERS, FAG MATT IN HELL, and GOD HATES FAGS.

At Matthew’s funeral, Fred Phelps stood outside the funeral waving a sign that had a picture of Matt with the words “Matt in Hell.” During the funeral he chanted, “Matt is in hell.”

Fred claims to have now organized over 22,000 demonstrations, many of which have been at other funerals. In his ongoing demonstrations, Fred carries a sign reading “Fags Die. God laughs.” In English, “fag” is one of the rudest names for homosexuals. Fred says, “I’ve been called to preach [God’s] message of hate.”

Fred has the same spirit as the Muslim rioters. “You are not following my religious beliefs. Therefore, I can publicly humiliate you and damn you to hell.”

James & John—Fire from Heaven (Luke 9:51-56)
Does Jesus approve of Fred Phelps’ tactics? Does Jesus really have a “message of hate”? Is religious and lifestyle intolerance new to Christianity? Let’s look at a story from the Bible to see how Jesus felt about this.

Jesus was traveling through Samaria on His way to Jerusalem. Remember that Samaritans and Jews hated each other because of religious differences.

“[Jesus] sent messengers on ahead. They went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him. But the people there did not welcome Jesus. That was because he was heading for Jerusalem. The disciples James and John saw this. They asked, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” (NIrV)

But He turned and rebuked them, and said “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (NASB)

The Bible teaches that there are two spirits—good and evil, God and Satan. Jesus said their attitude was not from God, but from the devil. To attack someone who disagrees with us, someone who has different religious beliefs than us, someone who has a different lifestyle than us, is an action motivated by Satan, not by the loving God of the universe.

The Samaritans refused to accept Jesus because He was on His way to the rival religious capital. In response, His disciples wanted to kill them. Neither party offered religious freedom. Both rejected the other because of religious differences.

The most famous SDA writer says the following about this attitude: “There can be no more conclusive evidence that we possess the spirit of Satan than the disposition to hurt and to destroy those who do not appreciate our work, or who act contrary to our ideas” (The Desire of Ages, 487).

In contrast to this attitude, Ellen White goes on to say: “God gives to every soul freedom to think, and to follow his own convictions…. In Christ’s kingdom there is no lordly oppression, no compulsion of manner” (The Desire of Ages, 550, 551).

“In matters of conscience the soul must be left untrammeled. No one is to control another’s mind, to judge for another, or to prescribe duty” (The Desire of Ages, 550).

But I should not just pick on Fred Phelps or Muslims or the disciples. I should look at myself. How well am I following Jesus’ example? Jesus’ true followers will have His spirit, “and where the Spirit of the Lord is, freedom is also there” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

So am I living with this same spirit of spiritual freedom? Am I giving people the freedom to search for God in their own way? Am I disrespectful of people who disagree with me about God, the Sabbath, or the typical SDA lifestyle? Or do I give others the same love and freedom that Jesus showed?

I’m sorry to say that I haven’t given people around me much freedom. My brother-in-law and I have different views of spiritual reality. In many ways we agree and support each other, but in some spiritual areas that I believe are very important, we have different beliefs. Over the past ten years, we have had many long talks that have lasted through most of the night.

I’m sorry to say that in many of our conversations, I was more interested in trying to prove him wrong and myself correct than I was in trying to understand him better and to show him respect. I wanted him to agree with me, and when he didn’t, I disrespected him. I hurt our relationship because he felt attacked by Christianity. I was trying to teach Christian principles, but I wasn’t living them. God is slowly opening my eyes to my weaknesses. I am striving to follow Jesus’ example.

Jesus’ Way
So let’s look more closely at Jesus’ way. What did he teach and live? It is completely the opposite of Fred Phelps, the Muslim rioters, and myself. Jesus spoke the hard truth openly, asked probing questions, and loved relentlessly. But Jesus (1) never forced anyone to follow Him, and (2) He loved all regardless of their acceptance or rejection of Him.

Instead of attacking those who disagree with us, instead of hating our enemies, Jesus taught to: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you” (Matthew 5:44).

He also taught us to show the same respect to people we disagree with, as we would want them to show us. It’s called the Golden Rule. “In everything… treat people the same way you want them to treat you...” Matthew 7:12

Jesus didn’t come to attack people who rejected Him. He came to give people a choice. Only He gives us true religious freedom. He shows us His love, and then He invites us to follow Him. Then he leaves us with the choice—Will I freely follow Jesus and live for Him? He will never force any part of the Christian life on anyone. It is all a free choice for us.

In fact, Jesus’ mission statement clearly points out that He came to earth to give us freedom. “The Spirit of the Lord is on me. He has anointed me to tell the good news to poor people. He has sent me to announce freedom for prisoners. He has sent me so that the blind will see again. He wants me to free those who are beaten down. And he has sent me to announce the year when he will set his people free” (Luke 4:18-19 & Isaiah 61:1-2).

Jesus & Rejection
So Jesus said to love enemies rather than to attack those who have different beliefs. Did he live it? Let’s look at one story of someone who rejected Jesus’ invitation.

A rich young man came to Jesus and asked Jesus what he had to do to receive eternal life. Jesus told the young man that he needed to give is wealth to poor people and then follow Jesus (Mark 10:21). The man became sad and just walked away because he loved his money too much (Mark 10:22). Jesus told the man the hard truth about real love, and invited the man to follow. But Jesus never coerced him or treated him disrespectfully.

In this story we see that Jesus spoke the hard truth openly. Jesus taught holy living, but He did not disrespect the man who disregarded His wisdom. In fact, Mark 10:21 says that “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

I can’t think of a greater rejection of Jesus religious teachings than to crucify Him. As the Romans were nailing Jesus to the cross, He said “Father, forgive them” Luke 23:34. He didn’t set them straight. He didn’t condemn them to hell like Fred Phelps. He didn’t reject them even though they completely rejected his spiritual claims. He loved them and prayed that they would be forgiven.

Stephen Covey
Stephen Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, makes a profound statement. “While we are free to choose our actions, we are not free to choose the consequences of those actions. Consequences are governed by natural law” (p. 91).

For example, I can choose to go to bed or stay up late. However, I can not choose to be wide-awake or tired the next day. I choose the action, but the natural consequence is not a matter of choice.

That is a rule of life, and it applies to spiritual things as well. We can choose Jesus or reject him, but we can’t choose the natural consequences of that. He will not force our love or our decision, but if we choose to live life on our own, we will face life’s temptations without his power. And I can say from experience that we will fall. Nevertheless, he will not force us to do anything, and he will not love us any less even if we choose to not give our lives to Him.

You may remember one time in the Bible when Jesus verbally attacked someone. Who was it? Was it a homosexual? A person with anger? A witch? A back-slider? A Samaritan? A Roman? A rich man? An unbeliever?

No. The religious leaders. If Jesus were here tonight, the only person in danger of being rebuked would be me since I am up here supposedly teaching His truth. The religious leaders were making it nearly impossible for people to experience God because of the endless religious rules they made up.

They gave freedom to no one. They took freedoms away. They would even stone to death people who disagreed with their ideas. Only the spiritual leaders faced his harsh words because they claimed to be speaking for God when they were actually speaking lies about God.
And we should remember that this one powerful exception came after He had tried over and over to show the religious leaders the errors of their teachings. Jesus came to give freedom, and he would not tolerate religious leaders who were instead burdening His people.

So be careful today. If teachers or pastors in church, if SDA teachers or pastors, try to push you to follow a certain way of life or to follow Jesus at all, be aware that this wasn’t Jesus’ example. If people treat you with disrespect because you disagree with them (and again this is for SDA teachers and pastors as well), please know that this is not the Spirit of Jesus.

Jesus came to give us freedom—freedom from our past, from guilt, from sin, from addictions, from pride, from hopelessness, from selfishness. If we follow Him, we will find freedom. He said: If you obey my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth. And the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).

If I obey Him and become His disciple, then I will find freedom. But He’ll never force you or me to become His disciples. And He’ll never love us any less even if we reject Him like the Rich Young Ruler. He wants each of us to choose Him. He died to give us the chance to choose Him, to love Him freely.

So now, the question is, Will I choose to live this day for Him? Will I choose the freedom He offers by giving my life to Him?

“Loving Father in Heaven, You want us to be free. You gave us minds to think, so we could be free. Your Son died, so we could be free. Help us to understand and love you, so we can make the best decision in the universe, so we can live each day of this life and each day of eternity with you. In Jesus name, Amen.”

[Then the main group split up into smaller groups to discuss the sermon. I provided the following questions to aid the discussion time.]


1. What part of the sermon was the most interesting to you?
2. Do you have any questions about it?
3. What freedoms do we have in this society?
4. Which of these freedoms do you value the most?
5. Would you fight and die for that freedom?
6. Would you be willing to fight and die so other people could have that freedom?
7. How do traffic laws give us freedom?
8. How do God’s laws give us freedom?
9. What is one of the best decisions you’ve ever made?
10. What were the consequences of that decision?
11. Have you ever felt rejected or attacked because of your political or religious ideas?
12. Have you always felt religious freedom at SDA Language Institute?
13. How do you think Jesus feels when His children fight?

EXTRA VERSES – John 10:10. Luke 15:11-32. Mark 10:17-27. Galatians 5:1. Acts 7:54-60.

1 comment:

Shayne said...

A very moving and powerful sermon my friend. Good job on the content - solid, and full of grace.

I also found it challenging. I ask myself how I respect others and their freedoms. Do I want people to thinking like me or think like Jesus - sometimes there is a big difference between the two.

Thank you for sharing, and speaking for Jesus. You make me smile.