The Fourth Sunday in Lent
April 3, 2011
“Two Religions at War with Each Other”
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the free woman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar; for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: "Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband." Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman." So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free. Galatians 4:21-31
This morning we are going to talk about the controversy of the ages. It is an argument that goes on and on and on. It began with Cain and Abel. It came up again between Job and his friends. It’s what distinguished King David from most of his successors. It was the point of debate between Jesus and the Pharisees. It arose again in the sixteenth century AD as the central issue of the Reformation. This debate is addressed throughout St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians. This morning we consider an allegory the apostle told to illustrate it.
The two sides of this debate are the flesh and the promise. The flesh is what we do. The promise is what God does. The flesh is what we can see and feel. The promise is hidden from sight. The flesh enslaves us. The promise sets us free.
Who wouldn’t rather be free than a slave? You would think that the promise would be more popular than the flesh. You’d think wrong. The flesh is always more popular than the promise because it is what we can see, measure, feel, and touch. Others can see it, too. The promise is true. It is from God. It makes us free. But – and this why it is never as popular as the flesh – the promise requires that you believe contrary to what you feel and see.
Sarah was far too old to have a baby. She couldn’t have a baby when she was young. Now it was too late. Hagar was a vibrant young woman with a healthy baby. Sarah could provide no heir for Abraham. Hagar could. She had a son by the name of Ishmael. Hagar despised Sarah. She strutted around like she owned the place. She was Sarah’s slave, but acted as if she was in charge. She could point to her own flesh and blood as evidence of her superiority over Sarah.
God promised Abraham that Sarah would give birth to a son. It was impossible. But God does the impossible. Sarah gave birth to Isaac. He was born because of the promise of God. Just as Hagar had looked down on Sarah, so Ishmael looked down on Isaac, mocking him. Sarah demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be sent away. Abraham didn’t want to do it but God told him that Sarah was right. They had to go.
This history has a symbolic meaning. Hagar represents the religion of the flesh and Sarah represents the religion of the promise. Hagar’s religion is the religion of human works. It teaches us to trust in what we do, that is, to trust in our flesh, our strength, our achievements, ourselves.
Sarah’s religion is the religion of God’s promise. It is the religion of grace. It teaches us to trust in what Jesus Christ has done for us, that is, to trust in his obedience and suffering, in his faithfulness all the way to his death on the cross. It teaches us to trust in Jesus.
The religion of the flesh looks more promising than the religion of the promise. That’s why it always has more disciples. Since the religion of the flesh goes by appearances, it invariably looks better than the religion of the promise.
God has never taught the religion of the flesh. He has always revealed himself in his promise. Immediately after the fall into sin, God gave the promise he would send a Savior who would crush the lying head of the devil and rescue humanity from his control. Throughout the Old Testament, God repeated the promise of a Savior. The entire worship system of the Old Testament pointed to this Savior by whose holy obedience and innocent suffering he would break the bonds binding the human race in slavery to the devil.
Wherever God’s promise has been proclaimed the Holy Spirit has brought people to faith in it. This is what sets people free. They are not born free. They are born enslaved to the devil. They are set free. The promise sets them free. The promise sets them free by giving Christ to them. With Christ comes the forgiveness of sins and peace with God. They are no longer under judgment. They no longer fear death. They are free from the fear of being kicked out and excluded. They belong to the family of God.
You don’t earn your status in the family. You don’t work for it. It isn’t given to you as a result of your behavior. You don’t get it or keep it by anything you do. You are born into it. You have it because of who you are – you a child – not because of what you do. You do what you do because of who you are, not because of what it will gain for you. You are already heir of what belongs to the family. It is yours.
The slave is not a member of the family. He doesn’t belong. He is valued only for his work and if it doesn’t measure up he is discharged. He has no claim to any inheritance because the inheritance belongs to the family.
Christians are born from above. Everyone is born of the flesh. Jesus said that whoever is born of the flesh is flesh. But Christians are those who have also undergone a spiritual birth. As such, they are children of promise. They don’t depend on the flesh. They don’t depend on themselves, their achievements, their works, their ingenuity, or anything else of themselves. They trust in what they cannot see. They cannot see Jesus but they know he is their Savior from sin. They know his righteousness is theirs by faith. They know that they belong to the family of God because they are children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.
The religion of the flesh not only competes with the religion of promise. It has the unmitigated gall to claim its status for itself. Hagar thought she could look down on Sarah and Ishmael thought he could look down on Isaac. Just so, those who teach a religion of works-righteousness presume to claim that it is the true Christian religion.
We can see what we do. So can our neighbors. We get immediate praise or criticism. The religion of the flesh teaches us to live for praise and to avoid criticism. God’s standards are pushed out in favor of popular opinion. Popular morality changes as quickly as styles of hair and clothing. The religion of the flesh mutates constantly as the fickle crowd runs after every new enthusiasm. Thus the religion of the flesh insinuates itself into the church and lays claim to authenticity.
But it is bogus. It’s fake. When Hagar started acting superior to Sarah and her son started acting superior to Isaac both mother and son were tossed out. God will defend his Church. He will vindicate his own promises. He will not permit his gospel to be falsified. The truth by which we are set free will be shown to be true and the whole world will see it.
The righteousness of Christ with which we Christians are robed will shine forth for all of creation to adore. Before this holy King all nations will bow. The children – those born from above, those adopted into God’s family by the Holy Spirit, those who trusted, not in their own flesh and blood, not in their own good deeds, not in their own accomplishments, not in their own family pedigree or in their popularity among the crowds, but in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ – will remain in the home. The slaves – those who trusted in their own flesh, who sought the approval of the world, who extolled human merit and despised the righteousness that is by faith alone – will be expelled. They never did belong, even when they paraded around as holier-than-thou pretenders. Only those who despaired of themselves and trusted instead in the doing and dying of Another – Jesus Christ – will remain in the house as true children of God.
The glory of the Church is hidden from sight. It is hidden under the suffering of Jesus. Being betrayed and denied and held up for scorn looks like abject failure. Yet we embrace Christ’s crucifixion as our glory. We claim his obedience as our royal robe of righteousness. With it we are clothed and are holy.
But we could not know this, see this, and believe this were we not born from above, if the heavenly Jerusalem were not our mother. And, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, we will not know this, we will not see this, and we will not believe this if the heavenly Jerusalem does not remain our mother. The true Church is not recognized by this world’s wealth. She cannot be found by looking for the high and mighty, the popular and the powerful. The true Church – the true home of God’s true children – is always despised and insignificant. But she is the mother of the faithful.
She is not recognized by her prestige. She has no status in this world. She is to be found and cherished wherever the gospel is purely proclaimed and the sacraments of Christ are rightly administered. Do you want to find the true Church? Find the truth! But the truth is not where the religion of the flesh says it is. It is not in human strength or achievement. The Truth incarnate testified to Pontius Pilate. Pilate marveled. How could Jesus speak so boldly to the one who had the power of life and death over him?
He was the everlasting Son of the Father! He spoke the truth to power. And in his confession we find the courage to confess. In his suffering we can rise up above our own. In his obedience we lay claim to the only righteousness that avails before God. He, the Child born of promise – defying the laws of nature and being born of a virgin – sends us his Spirit who makes us children of promise, keeping us in the true faith.
The son of promise is not Isaac. Isaac was only a picture of him to come. An imperfect one at that, as all pictures ultimately must be. He was born of promise as was Jesus. He was born of a woman who could not conceive as was Jesus. He was beloved of his father as was Jesus. He ascended a mountain to die as did Jesus. But Isaac did not die on the mountain. Jesus did. That death destroyed sin and death. It validated the truth of every promise God ever made. By washing away our sin that holy death gives us eternal life.
We Christians who trust not in our own obedience but in the obedience of Jesus for our salvation belong to the family of Abraham and Isaac. Abraham is our father and Sarah is our mother. We belong to the household of God. All legalists, who glory in the flesh and trust in their own deeds, will be tossed out. For the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. The Church from which we have found our true identity and freedom will remain after all monuments to the flesh have been destroyed. She is forever free and she is our mother. Amen