Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 31, 2017
Galatians 4:4-7 Commentary
Whenever a child is born, there is a change in status for various people. When a first child is born, someone becomes a mother for the first time or a father. The birth of a child can confer the new status of “grandparent” on someone or perhaps “uncle” or “aunt.” A new child can turn a first child into a brother or a sister for the first time. And we could extend this to cousins and the like.
But the one thing that never happens when a child is born is that someone who is already alive becomes him- or herself a child, someone’s son or daughter for the first time. If someone else in my family has a baby, I do not via that birth become a son for the first time. I do not become someone’s child on account of a birth anywhere in my family or circle of acquaintance. To be in existence means that every person is already someone’s child and that status cannot befall you twice.
Except, that is, for that birth Paul describes in Galatians 4. When the time was right in God’s great plan of salvation, a child was born and everyone who by faith became associated with that child eventually, those people also became new children all over again. Because the birth of Jesus means that the people of God become full children of God. We become full and permanent members of the family headed by a God we now are given permission and encouragement to call “Abba, Father.” Daddy. What an incredible change in status!
It is a change we often do not savor enough. Some of us can recall how weird it was to get used to the idea of being someone’s “husband” or “wife.” The first few times you use those words in reference to yourself or to your spouse, you almost start to giggle because it just feels so odd, so new. Adjusting to becoming “father” or “mother” is similar. The novelty wears off eventually, of course, but for a while there . . . well, it’s really something.
The shock at being able to call Almighty God “Abba” should be no less, and this is one novelty that ought not wear off. The privilege and the honor of being counted as a full child of God is the same. Here is a status never to be taken for granted, never to be counted as a mere commonplace.
All along in Galatians Paul has been assailing the Galatian Christians for their foolish retreat back into thinking that the Law and keeping the rules could save them (or at least help them get saved or keep them saved). Under the Law, Paul writes, we lived in fear. We were as good as slaves. But Paul had proclaimed the free (and freeing) grace of Christ. It is by grace we are saved. Jesus did it all. The cross of Christ means the end of our human striving because if even the Son of God had to go THAT far to accomplish all salvation, we puny and weak and sin-prone humans can know for certain that we cannot chip in anything.
And anyway, Paul reasons, when you get set free from slavery and get adopted as full sons and daughters of the heavenly Father, why would you want to go backwards? No one has ever heard of reverse manumission, of a reverse emancipation from slavery. Yet in a sense this is what the Galatians had opted to do.
The only plausible reason for such an implausible scenario is that they truly did not know what they were doing when the Galatians fell into the false teachings of those who claimed that Jesus had not actually fully accomplished salvation after all. So Paul spends almost the entire first four chapters of Galatians hammering away at the why and the how of this bad idea.
On the Sunday after Christmas for which this Galatians 4 passage is assigned for the Lectionary, we have the opportunity to see in the birth of the Messiah the glorious conferring onto us of the status of God’s own children. We are free from the Law that used to hold us down. We are free from the fear the Law inevitably brings us every moment we are aware that we have not kept the Law perfectly (and if God demands perfection . . . then we are either terrified or tempted to self-deception to deny our sins).
But the Good News that just is the Gospel is that this is not necessary for full children of the Father. It is a story, a status, we never tire of hearing about and celebrating. As Richard Lischer once pointed out in his book The End of Words, sermons are in one sense repetitive because some things bear repeating over and over. As he writes, “When the adopted child repeatedly asks her parents to recount the events surrounding her adoption, the story must remain the same. And woe to the one who introduces omissions or changes in the sacred formula. ‘And then out of all the babies in the orphanage, you chose me, right?’ Could parents ever tire of telling that story?”
No, they could not. And neither can we revel enough in our adoption as full children of God—a new status that is forever fresh and that we ought never want to change, reverse, or undo in any way, shape or form!
Some years ago many of us were riveted to the fine—but at times searing—movie 12 Years a Slave. In it we see the true story of Solomon Northrup, who had been a free black man living in the North in the years before the Civil War. Through a series of tragic circumstances, however, Northrup is abducted and sold into slavery where he remains for a dozen years before another series of (this time good) circumstances leads to his being freed.
The nightmare scenario of the film is obvious enough: when you know what it is to be free, you never want to become a slave. And if for some reason you do, your life falls apart. You very nearly lose your own identity, and the dignity you once had as a free person can begin to feel like a distant dream.
For Northrup, his enslavement was beyond his ability to control. But it goes without saying that no one in his or her right mind would ever CHOOSE to become a slave. Certainly someone who had once been a slave but then freed would not voluntarily revert to the once-despised status of being owned by someone else.
To the mind of the Apostle Paul, however, going from the free grace of Christ to once again live under the Law was just as much a nonsense scenario—just as much finally an UNTHINKABLE scenario—as a freed slave choosing to go back under the yoke of a mater’s oppression.
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