Comments, Observations, and Questions
While it is true that there are no birth narratives outside the synoptic Gospels, it is not true that the rest of the New Testament pays no attention to the miracle of the Incarnation. In fact, right here in one of (if not the) earliest epistles, Paul offers as profound a theological explanation of Christmas as we’ll find anywhere, except maybe John 1. Unfortunately, this high theology is embedded in a controversy that may seem far removed from our lives in 21st century North America. And it contains language that would sour many of our contemporaries before they ever wrestle with Paul’s central point.
So, before we can deal with the Pauline Christmas story, let me deal with those controversial points, beginning with the second. Paul’s use of the term “sons” seems on the face of it to exclude daughters, and that sounds sexist. This seems to be prima facie evidence of Paul’s patriarchalism, unless we read it in the light of his radically egalitarian statement in Galatians 3:28. “There is… neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” If we take that as the clearest revelation of how Paul views men and women, then our text today is not about gender, but about relationship. Paul is not excluding women from the redemption we have in Christ; he is talking about how our relationship with God has changed. We are no longer slaves under the law; we are children and heirs of God because of God’s Son. Though the Greek does actually say “sons” again and again, it is clear that Paul means children of either sex. All of us who were once slaves are now children.
That introduces us to the central controversy in this letter to the Galatians. What must we do to become full children of God? “Keep the law of God,” said the Judaizers who had recently invaded the Galatian churches. “No,” said Paul, “you must trust in Christ, and that’s all.” “But God gave us that law centuries ago as one of the central blessings of his covenant. Law keeping is essential to our identity as God’s children.” “That’s true, as far as it goes,” replied Paul. “But now God has done a new thing that changes everything. Now, God has sent for his Son… to redeem those who were under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Paul’s Christmas story, then, is the lynch pin in his argument that keeping the law is not the way we become full children of God.
That’s an important point to make in a legalistic culture, but I wonder if it matters at all in a culture as libertine as ours. I mean, most people, if they even think about it at all, probably think that God loves them no matter what. The idea that there is an objectively true, divinely given law is nonsense in the relativity of our postmodern age. And the notion that our relationship with God might be in jeopardy if we don’t do things right would be laughable to many of our contemporaries. Thus, the whole business of an Incarnation designed to remedy our broken relationship with God is irrelevant. Both the controversy of Galatians and the Pauline rhristmas account are far removed from the minds of most North Americans. How can we make this text relevant for our congregations who live in that world all the time?
A few years ago Time magazine sponsored a debate between Richard Dawkins, the famous atheistic scientist, and Francis Collins, an equally renowned scientist who is a devout Christian. Time labeled the debate, “God versus Science.” At the end of their debate, Dawkins actually allowed that, although he disagreed with the whole idea of a supernatural intelligent designer, it was at least a worthy idea, grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. But then he added this, which is apropos of our text. “I don’t see… Jesus coming down and dying on the Cross as worthy of that grandeur. [That] strikes me as parochial. If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.”
I actually like that last statement. It gives us an entre into Paul’s proclamation of Christmas. “If there is a God, it’s going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything any theologian of any religion has ever proposed.” That’s exactly what Paul and the other early Christians claimed—that what they had seen and heard and touched in Jesus Christ was a whole lot bigger and more incomprehensible than anything any theologian of any religion had ever proposed. They claimed that Christianity is not simply a religion, the invention of theological wise men or superstitious fools. It is the revelation of the incomprehensible God who is a whole lot bigger and grander and worthy of respect than any human can imagine.
At the heart of that revelation is the scandal of Christmas. Paul summarizes that scandal in the words of our text. “But when the time had fully come….” Time is not merely an endless stream of billions of years with no destination, no appointments. In verse 2 of this chapter Paul talks about human fathers setting a time for their children to become liberated adults, rather than minors under the supervision of guardians. God had set a time for His Son to come and liberate us. Time is the purposeful development of God’s plan. Mere humans find that plan as incomprehensible as a baby in the womb finds the outside world. But God has a plan that he revealed bit by bit in history, until like a woman in her ninth month of pregnancy, time was full.
Those words are crammed with history, a reminder of the long story of God’s previous efforts to bring freedom to the human race. He focused his efforts on the Jewish people, sending them all sorts of ambassadors to represent him. There were prophets to speak his message, priests to bring the people before God in prayer and with sacrifices, kings to rule in God’s place, wise men to impart God’s wisdom in the midst of life’s struggles. In Luke 20 Jesus summarized all of God’s efforts with a story about a rich landowner who rented his land to a group of farmers and then went away for a long time. At harvest time, he sent a messenger to collect some of the harvest in payment for the use of the land. But the tenants beat the messenger and sent him away empty handed. The landowner sent another messenger and yet another, but each one was treated shamefully, beaten and sent away with nothing. Finally, the landowner said, “I will send my son whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.”
When the time had fully come, when all else failed, God stopped sending messengers. The world didn’t need another merely human prophet to thunder God’s word, or a human priest to kill another sheep, or a human king to wave his scepter, or a human wise man to point the way. What the world needed was God himself, God in the flesh, in the middle of the mess, God the mediator. So God the Father sent forth God the Son filled with God the Holy Spirit.
Paul knew exactly what he was saying here. He was well aware of the religious pluralism of his world. He had been to the great centers of civilization in Athens and Ephesus and he would go to Rome. He had heard of other gods and lords represented by hundreds of images in thousands of temples. His is not the claim of a naïve parochial fanatic. In Acts 17 Paul stood in the midst of the most pluralistic city in the world and boldly proclaimed that God is a whole lot bigger than they had ever dreamed. He does “not live in temples built by hands… and he is not served by human hands….” Indeed, “from one man he made every nation of men….” There is just one God, and he is not one of your little parochial gods. He is far beyond your hands and minds.
And now this incomprehensible God sent forth (it’s exapesteilen in the Greek) his Son, sent him forth from the furthest reaches of space, from the depths of eternity, in the time of Caesar Augustus to a little town called Bethlehem. Yes, of course, that is preposterous—that the infinite God should gestate in the womb of a woman, that the eternal God should become a mortal human. What’s more, says Paul, he was born under the law, where all the rest of us live all the time. Yes, of course, that’s ridiculous—that the one who set in motion the laws of the universe, who implanted a moral impulse in every human heart, who wrote his law on tables of stone so every single human being would know his will, that the Lawgiver should become subject to his own law.
That’s the scandal at the heart of Christianity. We know it is offensive to the great world religions and ridiculous to intellectuals. But it’s not a parochial idea. It is magnificent. It is mindboggling. And it is merciful. We humans have been running away from God and attacking God since the beginning of human sin. We have made him our enemy and have made ourselves orphans. That’s why the One and Only God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law—so that we could be redeemed from our sin and once again receive the full rights of God’s beloved children. We, says Paul in verse 5, we—all of us, not just Jews, not just white men, not just North Americans. The Christian faith is not parochial. It is universal, for the whole world.
It will help us in our preaching to a “liberated world” if we focus on that word “redeem” in verse 5. Paul is talking about the way we get free– not through law, but through Christ. As I pondered that, I recalled the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” which told the story of the one man who saved the lives of over a thousand people during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The Hutu tribe slaughtered one million Tutsis in 3 months using machetes and machine guns. When the Hutus went on their rampage, Paul Ruseabagina sheltered hundreds of Tutsis in a luxury resort hotel, where they became virtual prisoners. That hotel kept the Tutsis safe; it was a good place to be. But it was like being in prison. They had to leave to gain real freedom.
So it is with the law, says Paul, any law whether Jewish or Roman, anything we might use to order and structure our lives to gain safety and security. Anything we use to enjoy the favor and blessing of God (even if we don’t call it God) will ultimately become a prison. We need to be set free from all the things we use to set ourselves free. Only God’s Son can set us free.
The wonderful news Paul proclaims is that God’s Son not only sets us free, but he also makes us children and heirs of God. To catch the full beauty of Paul’s message, remember the sad plight of the slaves after the American Civil War. They were set free, but they were virtual orphans wandering the countryside with no place to live and no resources. Paul declares that through Jesus Christ we can receive the full rights of children or, more literally, adoption. By his redeeming work, Jesus brought sin-created orphans back to our Father. And by the Spirit of his Son, God created in us the faith and love that calls a formerly estranged God, “Abba, Father.” I think that Paul is describing the two dimensions of adoption here—the legal side that gets us from the orphanage to the house and the personal side which actually generates a loving relationship between us and God. Now we can call him Father. All of us can do that; that’s what Paul is getting at by using the Jewish word “Abba” and the Greek word “pater.” No matter what our background may be, we are all God’s children through Jesus. And if we are children, we are also heirs of all God’s riches. Talk about a Christmas gift.
All of which is to say that this controversial passage actually speaks to deeply felt contemporary need. Paul’s explanation of Christmas shows us that God’s gift of the Christ child was designed to make us whole new people, to give us a new identity as human beings. We are no longer slaves who must keep inventing ourselves. We are liberated sons and daughters of God, heirs of riches that will boggle our minds.
Gillian Flynn’s story of a violently dysfunctional marriage, Gone Girl, was on the bestseller list for 91 weeks and has now been made into a wildly popular movie. In reviewing the movie, Time magazine made this telling analysis of its popularity. “Gone Girl gets at an essential truth about the limits of intimacy; however close you get, you can never know everything about your partner. There’s always that secret increment, a black box with God knows what inside it. What if there’s a whole secret life in there? A whole alternate personality? Gone Girl became a way for people to think and talk about relationships, but its resonance goes beyond that. In an age of social media, we are all more than ever invested in creating and maintaining fictional persona for others to consume. (emphasis mine) That ongoing fraud is part of how we live now.” In other words, who are we, really? Only God knows. Only God can tell. Only God can make us what we’re supposed to be.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 28, 2014
Galatians 4:4-7 Commentary