Saturday 22 December 2012

God sent his Son (Galatians 4:1-7)

No different from a slave

Our bible passage this afternoon is a classic Christmas text. It tells of how God sent Jesus to be born as a baby, taking on our humanity. We will get to that in verse 4. But just to set things in context, it is important that we begin reading from verse 1.

What I am saying is that as long as the heir is a child, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate.
Galatians 4:1

The key phrase for us to note is how Paul says that the heir can be “no different from a slave”. Paul is describing a someone who looks like he has everything - who himself thinks he owns everything - but in reality is no different from a slave. Why? Verse 2 says that he is subject to guardians and trustees. Verse 3 tells us that he is enslaved by “the basic principles of the world”. He’s a slave. This guy isn’t free.

Now, Paul is not talking about sin. That’s important to realise as the slavery which Paul describes in this verses is not addiction to some kind of destructive behaviour. That kind of slavery is obvious. You can see it in your own life (and you may or may not realise this, but your friends can see it too). That kind of bondage or addiction to sin is obvious.

But the slavery that Paul is describing here is not sin because this kind of slavery looks respectable. In verse 1, he gives us a picture of the heir who “owns the whole estate”. Literally, it reads “lord of all”. This guy has everything. Do you know anyone like that - who has all the money in the world; who has the car, the girl, the looks, the smarts? Paul says this guy might have it all but in reality he is no different from the slave forced to clean his toilet.

The thing is, Paul isn’t being hypothetical. He might be using an illustration but in verse 3 he makes it crystal clear he’s applying that illustration to us as Christians. He’s saying it’s possible for us to be saved but still live like we’re lost; it’s possible for us as believers to be sons and act like slaves.

So, also when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world.
Galatians 4:3

Did you get that? When we were children; we were in slavery? That’s Paul’s introduction to the Christmas message and his point is this: It’s possible for us as Christians to make a big deal out of Christmas and yet be absolutely clueless about the Christmas message.

It’s possible - in fact, I’d say that it’s likely - we have turned up today thinking, “This Christmas stuff is for someone else”; and we think it’s because we’ve done it so many times before, we know everything there is to know about Christmas; Christmas is for the kids, it’s for the newcomers, it’s boring - that’s what we think. But in reality, Paul says to us, “The real reason why you’ve lost that wonder over the message of the gospel is because you are like the heir who is no different from the slave”. Your friends might look at you and go, “That guy has everything.” Or, “She’s my role model.” But the truth is your life isn’t one of freedom. It’s one of slavery.

From Christmas to the cross

I got my haircut this week and struck up a conversation about Christmas with my barber, who is a Jehovah’s Witness. The thing you need to know about Jehovah’s Witnesses is they don’t believe that Jesus is God, so they don’t believe in the Christmas message that Jesus was God become man through the incarnation. So, my friend, the barber doesn’t celebrate Christmas (in fact, he doesn’t even celebrate his own birthday). When I asked him what his plans were for Christmas - whether he was going home, spending time with his family - he wasn’t at all keen on talking about it. “Christmas here in the UK is meaningless.” he said. “It’s just about presents and buying things. It’s not about Jesus.”

But then he pointed to bible which I’d placed on the counter. He had seen me reading it while I was waiting in line (I was preparing for this message) and was genuinely curious. “What is this, if you don’t mind my asking?” “It’s a bible,” I said.

“Do you mind if I took a look at your bible?” he asked. Wow! In fact, he did more than take a look at it. He called out to his friend behind his counter, “Hey, check this out!” He then showed me what he was reading that morning for his devotional (Psalm 37). We even talked about his favourite passages from Scripture (John 17 and Revelation 21).

As you can imagine, my haircut took a little longer than expected (and my hair ended up a bit shorter than expected!) He was trying to tell me why he believed Jesus was not divine. I was trying to answer his objections by showing how the bible pointed to Jesus as God.

But I also wanted to steer the conversation back to Christmas. Here was a guy keen to talk about God. He was enthusiastic about the bible. He had a high view of Jesus but he had a big problem with Jesus being God coming to be born as a baby. So finally I said to him, “I know that we disagree on this one thing - you say Jesus wasn’t God, I think the bible says he was. But what would it mean if he was? I know you don’t think so, but consider just for a moment - if Jesus was God, then what Christians are really saying is that God died on the cross. That’s the biggest difference between you and me. If God died on the cross, then it means God had to come as a man; then it means God had to be born as a baby.”

You see, Paul was trying to get to the same point when he talked about Christmas. He was trying to get to the cross. The reason God sent Jesus two thousand years ago, wasn’t just to be born as a baby. It was so that Jesus could die for our sins. In other words, the reason for Christmas is the cross.

Born under law

But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.
Galatians 4:4-5

Most people only ever hear verse 4, “God sent his Son, born of a woman...” but it is verse 5 that tells us why God sent Jesus; why Jesus was born of a woman. Verse 5 says, “to redeem those under law.”

If you remember, that is what the angel said to Joseph, “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Most babies only do three things - eat, sleep and poop. Babies are helpless, they can’t look after themselves, they need constant attention. They need constant care. But this baby, according to the angel, will grow up to do something for us instead. He will save his people from their sins.

That’s why Jesus was born. If you notice, Paul doesn’t just say, “born of a woman,” he also adds, “born under law.” Why does he say that? Born of a woman, we understand. In fact, isn’t that what we hear every Christmas? Jesus was born as a baby. His parents were Mary and Joseph. And then we get the kids to dress up as the shepherds who come and see the baby Jesus in the manger. We understand that Christmas is about Jesus being born as a baby. We’ve heard again and again that on Christmas Day, God sent his Son to be born as a man, born of a woman.

But why? That’s the question Paul is answering. Why did Jesus have to be born of a woman? Answer: Because Jesus was entering our world not as an heir but as a slave. That’s what being born under law means. It means humbling himself. It means Jesus subjected himself under God’s law, living in obedience to the law and ultimately taking upon himself the punishment of the law.

That’s why verse 5 begins, “To redeem those under law.” Redeem simply means to pay. His life was a kind of payment and the law was a bill that we couldn’t afford to pay ourselves, but which Jesus took on and signed on our behalf. Under the law, Jesus paid the price for our salvation.

A few days ago I went to see the musical Les Miserables, which tells the fictional story of Jean Valjean, a man locked up in jail for nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release from prison, he meets a bishop who offers him food and shelter, but Jean ends up stealing the silverware instead. Jean gets apprehended by the police who bring him back in chains to the priest’s home. But instead of charging Jean Valjean with the theft of the silverware, the bishop thrusts a couple of silver candlesticks into his hands, saying, “You left so early, surely something slipped your mind. You forgot... I gave these to you, also!”

What the bishop showed was more than generosity. It was grace. He gave Jean a second chance. “God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God,” said the bishop to Jean.

When Jesus paid our debt on the cross, he did more than pick up the tab. He released us from slavery to become sons. Verse 5 again, “To redeem us under the law that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Paul puts it another way in 2 Corinthians 8:9, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

At the end of the day, Paul is saying you are either a slave or an heir. It’s either one or the other. Again, the kind of slavery Paul is talking about isn’t chains and oppression and bondage - it’s not the kind of slavery that’s obvious. Rather, this slavery looks respectable and proper from the outside.

Over and against the Valjean’s character in the musical Les Mis was the character of Inspector Javert, who spends his life searching for the escaped convict. Yet in a pivotal scene of the musical, Jean risks his life to save the inspector from being executed. The inspector cannot comprehend how a criminal he has despised all his life would come to his aid. Instead of gratitude, the experience fills the inspector with grief and hatred.

Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I'll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

Unable to deal with the conflict in his soul, Javert takes his own life by jumping off a bridge. You might say to me, “Now that’s just silly. Why would anyone be so broken up over the law - a bunch of rules - of all things?” Well, for Javert it was the law, but for many students here in Cambridge, it’s their degree. For many parents, it’s their children. For many Asians, it’s respect and status in the community. We’re not talking about something that’s bad or destructive in and of itself, rather, it’s what we’ve built our entire lives on, over and against God. It’s that thing or person or accomplishment, which if taken away, we would say, “I no longer have a reason to live.” That’s the kind of slavery Paul is describing in Galatians and I think it’s a kind of slavery that happens a whole lot here in a city like Cambridge.

What Jesus did in coming to be born on Christmas Day was take on our humanity, yes, but also, take on our slavery. He was born under law, so that when he died on the cross, he could take the full penalty of that law.

When you understand slavery in that way and what Jesus did to free us from that slavery, then you begin to see that people react to the message of Christmas in one of two ways. Either they are freed from their slavery by trusting in Jesus, or sadly like Inspector Javert, they would rather die the slave than live in gratitude to the one who freed them.

This means determining whether you are a slave or an heir is not as simple as asking yourself, “Am I free?” or “How blessed do I feel?” After all, Paul began with the heir who thinks he has everything but in reality is no different from the slave. Meaning, it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you are one or the other - either out of pride or self-pity. No, the real test is in your response to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The real test is look at the cross - to see there a man hanging in agony, bearing the full weight of God’s anger - and say, “That’s what I deserved, but thank you, Jesus, that you came and paid price I could never have paid on my own.”

The Spirit of the Son

Some of you are terrified at the idea of doing something like that because you think it’s a con that Christians use to get you to feel miserable about your sin. You are afraid that if you let yourself be vulnerable even for a moment, even before God, he’s going to point the finger at you and go, “Aha! Gotcha!”

If that’s you, then just listen to what Paul says next because he tells us God sends the Spirit to help us to cry out to him as more than just a master, more than just a judge. He wants us to call him Dad.

Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir.
Galatians 4:6-7

God helps us to turn to him every step of the way. First he sent his Son to die for us on the cross. Then he sends the Spirit of his Son to call him Father. Why does he do that? Precisely because it’s not enough to know that we are no longer slaves, we need to be reassured that we are sons. If you are at all able to pray to God and call him Father, here is a word of assurance from the bible that says to you, it’s the work of the Holy Spirit enabling you to do just that.

The point is, God doesn’t want slaves, he loves us as sons. He loves us to such an extent that he sent his own Son to die on the cross for us. It means he isn’t looking for you to prove yourself - he loves you. It means he isn’t looking for you to make up for your mistakes - he forgave you in Jesus already.

It means that in Jesus Christ, God became man, the Son humbled himself as a slave, the author of life suffered death, the sinless one became sin, the one who made the law was born under law in order that he might redeem those under law. In order that we, together with Jesus, might receive the full blessings of God our Father as his sons.

Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
"Glory to the newborn King!"

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