Proclaim Liberty to the Captives

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

Luke 4:18 (ESV)
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Yesterday, we observed a holiday, relatively “new” on the national scale, of “Juneteenth.” Many people across the United States (and elsewhere) still don’t know the meaning behind this day. On the nineteenth of June, 1865, federal soldiers entered the city of Galveston, Texas, with news of the Emancipation Proclamation and the victory of the Union over the Confederate Army in the Civil War. The Emancipation Proclamation, in which President Abraham Lincoln declared freedom for all slaves throughout the Confederate States, had been signed on January 1, 1863. The war had been over for more than two months. President Lincoln had been assassinated in April. But news of the proclamation had never reached as far as Galveston; nor had news of the defeat of the Confederacy. Far from the ravages of the war, and far from the events of Washington or Richmond, the people of Galveston continued with life as it had been. For two-and-a-half years, people who had been declared free continued to live as slaves. News of their freedom came with shock and joy! Finally, those who were considered free in the eyes of the law KNEW they were free, indeed!

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It would take more than 100 years for many of the injustices to be addressed that had grown up around slavery. Many of them are still being contested. But the celebration of the good news of Freedom continues, along with the hope that we will continue to build a better Union for All.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gesturing during sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. (Photo by Donald Uhrbrock//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Several centuries before the American Civil War, Jesus stood in the synagogue and read a prophetic passage from the book of Isaiah, in which He declared that He had been anointed to proclaim, among other things, “liberty for the captives.” He wasn’t talking about those who were in physical or institutionalized slavery, but for all of us who are slaves to sin. Unlike the slaves of Galveston, many of us are unaware of our captivity. But like them, we have been declared Free. What good news! Yet, we continue living in ignorance, both of our slavery, and of our potential freedom.

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How many of us, even those of us who claim the Salvation of Christ, continue to live as though we are slaves? How many of those around us live as slaves without knowing they can be free? Today is a great day to proclaim the Good News– Jesus Saves! We can walk in Freedom and Newness of Life! Hallelujah! Carry the Good News to those who have not heard. Proclaim Freedom to the captives, and Liberty for those who are oppressed.

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Juneteenth is a time of celebration and exhilaration– for those who understand the gift of freedom. God offers us freedom–not from the trials or work of ordinary life– but freedom TO LIVE–abundantly, eternally, and fruitfully! In Christ, life has purpose, promise, hope, and joy. Death and sin and shame have been defeated– the war is over! Freedom is ours!

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I hope that today (and every day!)is a day of celebration for all of us who know the Freedom of Life in Christ.

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, I am reprinting one of his prayers, called St. Patrick’s Breastplate. For more on this and other prayers attributed to St. Patrick, see https://slife.org/saint-patricks-prayers/.

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St. Patrick (also known as Padraig or Padrig) lived in the fifth century during the last of the Roman era in Britain. Held as a slave in Ireland as a young man, he escaped and returned to his home. However, he felt called to return to the land of his captivity as a missionary. Today, he is celebrated for his efforts to bring the Good News of Christianity to the very people who had enslaved him. The following prayer is attributed to St. Patrick. It is as relevant today as it was over 1500 years ago:

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

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I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me;
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s hosts to save me
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

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Christ shield me today
Against wounding
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

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I arise today
Through the mighty strength
Of the Lord of creation.

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The Right Side of History

My nation– and even my community–is divided right now. People argue, accuse, blame, and reject their neighbors because of political beliefs. And they defend the “rightness” and righteousness of their own beliefs–even when they must compromise on other beliefs and teachings of the Bible. Some people use the phrase “I’m on the right side of history..” or “History will prove us right.” And they cross their arms, jut out their chin, and stand smugly convinced that they have won the argument.

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But history books are written by human beings– and usually those human beings who are in power. “History” is constantly in flux– some things that were deemed “virtuous” or “necessary” in the past are looked on with horror today. Times change; societies change; customs and morals change.

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When we justify our politics, or our actions to others in this way, we are really saying, “whatever I am doing, saying, or supporting today will be judged “righteous” by future generations. And that may be so. Those who advocated for the abolition of slavery in America over a century ago should surely qualify as people who were on the “right side of history.” Yet, in the past year of rioting across my country, many of the statues that were toppled, and spray-painted, and chiseled, and marred were of abolitionists. Their moral prowess notwithstanding, they were seen as “old, white men” in old-fashioned clothing, whose lives and legacies were long forgotten, or confused with other “old, white men” who had supported slavery during the same time period. We delight in “debunking” cherished histories, toppling our heroes, and rewriting traditions. And we often compare our “struggles” to those of previous generations, even if the comparisons are skewed or largely non-existent. And in our fight to push forward a particular narrative or policy; in order to “take back” a certain position or tradition, we often lose our moral compass, believing the lie that “the end justifies the means” or that “might makes right.”

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In order to be on the “right side of history” today, people tend to make certain compromises– regardless of what “side” they choose. Political parties tend to support diverse causes and groups. Whatever good policies they promote, chances are they also promote policies and beliefs that are in direct conflict with scripture. Words like “compassionate,” “wholesome.” “traditional,” “patriotic”, “liberal,”and “progressive” may sound noble, but they often mask actions and policies that are corrupt, wicked, and destructive.

As Christians, we must be careful not to make “comfortable compromises” and to avoid righteous-sounding justifications. Just as importantly, we must be careful when confronted with labels and accusations, not to over-react or respond with bitterness or arrogance. If someone accuses me of being “hateful” or “gullible” because of my political beliefs, it is tempting to puff up and respond in kind. No one likes being judged. In fact, we are told in scripture NOT to judge, lest we be judged in kind. (Matthew 7:1-6) Jesus was often misunderstood, hated, falsely accused. He went to the cross after being found innocent by Pilate– who compromised by offering the Jewish people a choice of the innocent Jesus or the condemned Barabbas, instead of commanding that Jesus be released. In spite of his compromise, Pilate is not considered to be on the “right side of history” for his political masterpiece.

In fact– we are ALL on the WRONG side of of history! No matter how righteous our beliefs, ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Our allegiances, our morality, our political affiliations– none of them will save us from the just judgment of God, or the wavering judgments of future generations. We need, more than ever, to hold fast to the truth, and to seek God’s wisdom. When the final “history” is written, I want to be on God’s side!

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Daring to Dream

I’ve been reading about Joseph in Genesis. He was the favored son of Jacob (Israel), and he was a dreamer. His dreams were spectacularly unpopular with his older brothers, and got him into a world (or a well) of trouble. (See Genesis 37)

Joseph’s dreams were sent to him from God…they weren’t just wishes or imaginings. But they were grand. Joseph had a dream that all his brothers (represented by bales of wheat) bowed down to him. Later, he dreamed that his entire family would bow down to him. He was just 17, and full of the arrogance of youth. His jealous brothers were so outraged, they plotted to kill him. When an easier opportunity arose, they sold him into slavery, instead. (See Genesis 39-45)

Joseph’s dreams seemed to mock him when he arrived in Egypt as a slave. And after spending years building up a sterling reputation with his master, his dreams were dashed again. Falsely accused and unable to defend himself, Joseph ended up in prison. Who would ever bow down before a convict and a slave?

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Joseph could have become bitter and angry. He could have given in to the frustration of serving those who were willing to let him do all the work and take on all the responsibility, while they got all the credit. But Joseph dared to dream– not the dreams of an arrogant 17-year-old, but the dreams of an honest and God-fearing man. He dreamed that his actions and attitudes mattered– even as a slave; even as a prisoner. He dreamed that God could and would rescue him and vindicate him. He dreamed that God had a purpose for his life– one that depended on Joseph being the best man he could be.

The Bible never records Joseph having visions and dreams in Egypt. But because Joseph had experienced grand dreams as a youth, he was sensitive to the dreams of others. He could have ignored the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup bearer and baker in prison. He could have sneered and laughed at their dreams. He could have told them all about his much grander dreams of old. Instead, he was ready to ask for God’s wisdom to help others interpret THEIR dreams. And in doing so, God gave Joseph the miracle of a dream fulfilled. Along the way, Joseph received life lessons in patience, humility, responsibility, management, integrity, and leadership. Joseph’s brothers–coming to seek grain!– bowed down to him, just as he had once dreamed they would. But they didn’t bow to him as a kid brother; they bowed before Pharaoh’s agent and the second-most powerful man in the entire known world. They bowed before a men who held the kind of power none of them had ever dreamed of. They bowed before a man they might have killed– except for God’s plan. Joseph was sent ahead, trained in the art of management, and perfectly placed to save thousands of lives.

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Sometimes our lives seem like a waste– all our dreams have been shattered, either by circumstances or by our own bad choices. But God can take our most cherished dreams and redirect them into something amazing. He has a purpose for your life. It may not seem grand, like Joseph’s youthful dreams, but in God’s hands, it may have an enormous impact. Some days, it may seem like we’re living through a nightmare, but God writes the ending– and He’s already there!

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El-Roi–The God Who Sees…

Do you ever feel invisible? One of the common complaints among depressed people is that they feel as if no one sees them. “No one would notice if I just disappeared..” “No one really notices me…I just fade into the background.” “I always get passed over; pushed aside; ignored…” “Everyone just seems to look right through me. It’s like I don’t even exist.”

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In a world of 7.8 billion people, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population#:~:text=In%20demographics%2C%20the%20world%20population,more%20to%20reach%207%20billion. it’s easy to see why someone might be tempted to feel that way. But it isn’t true. No one exists in a vacuum. Even when it feels like we are being ignored or dismissed or forgotten, someone is always watching.

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Hundreds of years ago, Hagar, the slave girl of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, believed herself to be abandoned and alone. She had been used by her mistress as a pawn in a scheme to give Abraham a son. Hagar was able to do what Sarah could not (get pregnant by Abraham), and she let it go to her head. But she was still a slave. When Sarah complained to her husband, Abraham reminded her that she still had power over Hagar. Sarah used that power to mistreat Hagar, causing her to run away into the wilderness. But God was watching. The “angel of the Lord” not only saw Hagar– he found her beside a spring and called out to her by name. He asked why she was in the wilderness, and then gave her a promise– that her descendants would become too numerous to count! In response, she gave God a name– El-Roi– “the god who sees me.”

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The Bible is filled with stories of people–sometimes warriors and kings, but often ordinary, even lowly, people: slaves, younger siblings, nameless servants–who are seen and chosen by God for His Glory, to play a special role in history. God sees them all; He knows them all by name (even if their names are not recorded in the Bible!) He knows each person’s strengths and weaknesses; He knows everyone who will cross their path, how their story began, and how their story will end.

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We can take great comfort in knowing that God sees us. There is nothing hidden from Him– when we are slighted or mistreated; when we are the ones wronging others…He knows our thoughts and emotions. He knows our strengths and weaknesses (better than we know ourselves!) He understands– even when we don’t–what’s happening in and around us. God sees us exactly as we are– and He already knows all that we can become! Hagar could see that she was a pawn. She could see herself giving Abraham a child when Sarah had not. But God didn’t see her as “just” a slave girl or “just” a pregnant woman. He saw her her as a young woman in distress; as a woman with unique hopes and dreams, aches and disappointments; and as the ancestress of millions upon millions of people– unique people, each one loved and seen and known intimately by their creator. He saw her as someone worthy of being found and called and reassured. And even though God sent her back into a difficult situation, He kept His eyes on her, and came to her rescue again years later.

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On days when you feel invisible, or forgotten– when it seems that no one would notice your absence– remember Hagar’s experience with El-Roi– “The God who Sees.”

Daniel– A Life of Dangerous Prayer

When we hear about the Biblical story of Daniel, we usually hear only the small story of Daniel and the den of lions. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for refusing to obey the king. God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was saved. It is an amazing, miraculous, even incredible story. But what makes Daniel’s story truly amazing is to see it in perspective. I’d like to spend a couple of days looking at the larger picture of Daniel’s life.

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Daniel, like Jacob or Hannah, was an ordinary person– yet he was different, too. Daniel was from the line of kings and the royal household of Israel. He was strong and intelligent, among the elite young men of the land. According to the Bible, he was also gifted with the ability to interpret dreams and visions– a gift of extraordinary importance that set him apart from others. In that sense, he is more of a “Bible Hero” than those we have looked at in the past few weeks.

But Daniel was also a slave– a captive who was ripped from his homeland and taken by force to serve in the court of the Babylonian king. He was a stranger in a strange land; he walked a very dangerous line of trying to keep the favor of the king while dealing with very powerful and resentful enemies among the king’s other courtiers. Daniel stood apart–there is little mention of a family in Daniel’s story– Daniel faced many of his trials alone (except for God). And, while Daniel survives many extraordinary trials, he never receives the kind of promise or fulfillment that we saw in the lives of Hannah or Jacob. Daniel spends most of his life as a captive. He never gets to go back to his homeland. He never gets to see the fulfillment of his great vision– in fact, he asks for clarification, and is simply told to go his way–he will understand at the end of time.

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But Daniel has a lot to teach us about prayer– it’s power, it’s peril, and it’s promise.

In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are told a very little about Daniel’s background and how he ends up in the service of the king. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%201 One little detail that stands out today, in light of our recent study of Jacob, is that Daniel is given a new name– not by God, but by the Babylonian official who is his new “boss”. Daniel is to be known as Belteshazzar– “Protect the life of the King”. Daniel is used by God to protect, and even warn, the foreign kings who have taken him captive. Daniel faithfully serves his oppressors– he does not seek to betray them or plot revenge against them. But the new name doesn’t stick– just as we still know Jacob by his old name (and the nation he founded by his God-given name), we know Daniel by his original name–“God is my Judge.”

Daniel’s first trial comes when he and his friends are selected for potential service to Nebuchadnezzar. They are to be trained and fed at the king’s own palace. They are to be assimilated into Babylonian culture, history, laws, etc. But Daniel refuses to be “defiled” by the royal food and wine. Instead, he and his companions ask for a diet of plain vegetables and water. Much has been made of this– entire diets and healthy living books have been based on just this simple request. I think such plans miss the bigger picture. Daniel’s request wasn’t about veggies or “strength training.” It wasn’t about eating smarter or being stronger and healthier than the other captives. It was about obedience to God AND to the very authorities who were offering the food from the king’s table.

There was nothing nutritionally “wrong” with the king’s food or wine, nor any particular virtue in the vegetables Daniel requested. But there were at least three good, Biblical reasons why Daniel may have refused to eat the king’s food. First, the Babylonian customs called for sacrifice to their gods–even human sacrifice in some cases! But much of the meat, fruit, and grain offered at the king’s table may have come from the temples. Food that had been ritually “offered” to the gods would be fit for the table of the king. But Daniel would not want to eat the food offered to these other, false gods– it would suggest that Daniel agreed that these gods were worthy of the sacrifices that had been offered– including infants. Better to eat plain food of any type than food that had religious implications. Second, the food was likely to be non-Kosher. God’s people were to be distinct, including in their diet. There were several types of foods forbidden to the Jews that would likely be on the daily menu of the palace–not just the foods themselves, but the way they were prepared. It’s not that these foods were not edible or nutritious, but God wanted his people to demonstrate discipline and obedience. Daniel did not want to compromise or cause trouble on a daily basis rejecting first this dish, then questioning that one…easier by far to simply request what he knew was in line with God’s ways. Finally, Daniel was being offered rich and decadent food while many of his fellow Israelites were starving in their captivity. To stuff himself full of the best food in the land would not change their circumstances– but it would change Daniel’s heart. This was more important than any particular diet. Daniel did not claim that his requested diet of vegetables would make him stronger or wiser or healthier than the others– he trusted that God would sustain him to be at least as strong and healthy as anyone else. And God did more!

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It is important, also, to note that Daniel did not defy the king or demand special treatment. He won the respect of the official in whose charge he was being kept. He even helped the official overcome his fear of the king. Why is this important? Daniel was in a difficult and dangerous position. He was a captive– a slave in a strange land– with a golden opportunity. He was chosen to be in the elite group of young people who could serve with power and influence in the land of their oppressors. Daniel, in fear or seeking his own advancement, could have trusted to his own wits and the favor of the Babylonians. He could have abandoned his commitment to serve God in favor of serving the immediate whims of those around him. He could have determined that in his new situation, he should adapt to the new rules, even those that contradicted God’s word. Or, he could have been defiant and arrogant–demanding that the Babylonians recognize all the customs of his native land, including his Kosher diet. He could have encouraged his friends to lead a rebellion; he could have gone on a hunger strike to protest the king’s food. But the king had never commanded that the young people eat his food– he had merely offered it as an incentive. Daniel used wisdom and tact. He won the trust of the official by suggesting a trial period of ten days to see if the “alternative” food plan would prove acceptable. He didn’t place his trust in his own actions– he placed his trust in the true Judge, and offered faithful service– both to God and to Nebuchadnezzar.

No matter our circumstances today– whether we are in a palace or a prison; whether we are free or enslaved– God sees us. He will judge, not only the actions of our oppressors, but our response to oppression and hardship, and mistreatment (or our oppression and mistreatment of others). May we, like Daniel, turn to the true Judge, and walk worthy of His Name today.

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